National Conservatism's Fatal Conceit

Finally, conservatives have freed themselves from neoliberalism, or so one might say after last month’s National Conservatism Conference in Washington D.C., in which conservatism’s independence from libertarianism and classical liberalism was declared. Indeed, for many of the speakers, the three-day event was, in the words of Oliver Wiseman, “as much about owning the libertarians as it was ‘owning the libs’.”

I won’t go through the core conclusions of the conference, which have been analyzed possibly a gazillion times since. Rather, I want to look at two separate yet similar speeches of the conference — one, titled Beyond Libertarianism, by Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, the other by Mary Eberstadt, a former Senior Fellow of the EPPC — as they give insight to some of the core ideas of “national conservatism” and its opposition to the principles of individual liberty and free-market capitalism.

For Eberstadt, “the case for national conservatism is self-evident.” The national interest, i.e., the “well-being of our country as a whole,” should be at the center of attention for conservatives and it is here where “the default answer has been laissez faire social and economic arrangements” for a quite a while. Vance agrees, arguing that in a time of so many crises, including “family decline, childhood trauma, opioid abuse, community decline, the decline of the manufacturing sector, and the loss of dignity and purpose and meaning that come along with it,” conservatives have, for the most part, “outsourced our economic and domestic policy thinking to libertarians.”

This outsourcing has resulted in complete relativism when it comes to these crises – a “so what” attitude. As long as choices – regardless of the merit of those choices – are made freely by individuals, we can’t do anything about it or have an opinion about the choice, both Eberstadt and Vance equate libertarians with saying. For the former, “libertarianism is like moonshine. If your health is otherwise good, you’ll experience it as a tonic. But if anything about you is impaired, it could hurt or even kill you. And that is exactly why libertarianism alone cannot be trusted to guide nationalism. Because it regards citizens who can’t handle the moonshine as acceptable collateral damage.”

Once more, Vance approves of Eberstadt, arguing that while he doesn’t think that libertarians are heartless, they will most often say things like: “Well that choice comes from free individuals. If people are choosing not to have children, if they’re choosing to spend their money on vacations, or nicer cars, or nicer apartments, then we should be okay with that.”

Crucially, conservatives should not only dismiss this, they should also, in an unexplained conclusion, use political power to reach their goals:

If you think those things are problems—if you think children killing themselves is a problem, if you think people not having families, not getting married, and feeling more isolated are problems—then you need to be willing to use political power when it’s appropriate to actually solve those problems.

As Vance already indicated in a speech earlier this year, this essentially means (significantly) more government action on the national level.

Of course, what libertarianism precisely means can often be difficult to assess. Similar to any other political movement, there are more versions of libertarian ideology than one can count (and nobody can agree on a single account). And the “so what” creed that the two critics attack so mightily is prevalent among some libertarians. It should be noted, nonetheless, that this description of libertarianism is still in many regards a straw man.

Just take Eberstadt’s description of what libertarians supposedly think:

So what if working-class Americans can’t find jobs. So what if people are crossing the border illegally and endangering themselves — sometimes dying, in the process. So what if flyover countries are plagued by drugs, health problems, even a drop in life expectancy.

This description may hold true for someone who is libertarian simply to “legalize it” so that he can finally get high legally. But the moral relativism of some hardly translates into the moral relativism of all. Where do, for example, F.A. Hayek, Adam Smith, Lord Acton, Adam Ferguson, and others fit in this description?

Hayek, for instance, always made sure to not be misunderstood in this way when he said that “freedom has never worked without ingrained moral beliefs.” For the Austrian economist, it was clear that a free society as well as the market economy needed to be supplemented by a moral foundation, or it would inevitably fall apart — or, as Yuval Levin put it recently, a free society “must remain rooted, because man does not live by bread alone, and because both the market and the larger society depend upon other formative institutions that help us all become better human beings and citizens.” In this sense, there is no way someone like Hayek would have said “so what” to a weakening of social institutions, mass unemployment in rural areas, or the opioid crisis.

The libertarian straw man is, however, crucial to Eberstadt and Vance so as to argue for more power to the state. For if those opposed to the all-intrusive state are completely indifferent to the concerns of the people, then, both argue, that means that our anointed nationalists —who never tire in telling us how much they care — are allowed to use the coercive force of government, and it would be quite dumb if they weren’t allowed such force. But what separates Hayek, for instance, from Vance is not that one is indifferent about social crises and the other not. The difference is a matter of what method should be used to solve them. Should it be government attempting to solve a crisis? Or should it be the people through voluntary cooperation and their own decision-making in civil society?

It is here, though, where it is rather shocking how many of the national conservatives have become strangely ignorant of the dangers of centralized power. Sure, they can rail against ‘Big Tech’ and large corporations, but little can still be heard about the dangers of Washington D.C., or Brussels, Berlin, or London making decisions for hundreds of millions of people and picking winners and losers in the economic arena. Cases such as Budapest, Rome, or Warsaw, where the rule of law, freedom of the press, free association, and any sense of fiscal prudence, are increasingly attacked, are meanwhile even defended.

As Steven Horwitz writes in another reply to Vance over at EconLib, simply because Vance thinks government should solve all of the crises he has diagnosed, does not mean it would be successful in it. In fact, the state in all likelihood will fail (think of public choice economics, false economic premises when it comes to protectionism, or that whole cronyism thing as just a few examples why). Instead, national conservatives “will likely exacerbate the very social ills they hope to remedy.”

There is, of course, a long history of how centralized power over society’s local decision-making will lead to disaster. Power corrupts and power corrupts absolutely, said Lord Acton. Edmund Burke, the great father of conservatism and by no means a friend of Big Government either, wrote that “Many of the greatest Tyrants on the Records of History have begun their Reigns in the fairest Manner. But the Truth is, this unnatural Power corrupts both the Heart, and the Understanding.” The question certainly arises where this fear of centralization, which is so naturally conservative, has gone in the minds of national conservatives who argue for dirigisme in a wide variety of social and economic affairs.

Of course, many of the crises that national conservatives want to, rightfully, fix were, in part, created by government, by politicians thinking they can solve every malady in the world. How the state can destroy the social fabric and further social disintegration has already been pointed out throughout the decades and centuries by the likes of Robert Nisbet or Alexis de Tocqueville, where social institutions between the individual and the state, grown organically from the bottom-up, were replaced by this “immense and tutelary power” which is “absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild.”

That J.D. Vance himself knows this can be clearly seen in his own Hillbilly Elegy, which strikes a surprisingly different tone when it comes to politics than his recent speeches do. In his bestseller, he praises the “libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy,” and writes that there is no “magical public policy solution or an innovative government program” that could solve the problems that “family, faith, and culture” are facing today. He appeals to self-responsibility when he argues that we should “stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”

Indeed, at one point in the book, he provides a great example of how government is actually causing problems for the family:

For families like mine—and for many black and Hispanic families—grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles play an outsize role. Child services often cut them out of the picture, as they did in my case. Some states require occupational licensing for foster parents—just like nurses and doctors—even when the would-be foster parent is a grandmother or another close family member.

To quote him one final time, in Hillbilly Elegy, Vance realized that government could not be the solution: “I’d curse our government for not helping enough, and then I’d wonder if, in its attempts to help, it actually made the problem worse.” Indeed.

This goes to the core of the advocacy for government action by national conservatives. Of course, a “so what” attitude is highly damaging. We should be ready to tackle the social crises conservatives have diagnosed and put all of our efforts into solving them. Yes, globalization — especially the political sort — poses new kinds of questions that will need further considerations, including on what place the nation, local identities, and the common good should have in our society.

Yet, this is in many regards a discussion over method. But national conservatives seem to not only have declared independence from libertarianism, but also skepticism of political power, without having provided any explanations for why these age-old arguments against state power are not valid anymore. The fatal conceit is now their own.

Instead of arguing for all kinds of government policies, national conservatives would do well to follow the example of J.D. Vance, the entrepreneur, to argue for voluntary means to solve these issues, for decentralization and local governance to return agency and power to the people in neglected areas, and for a revitalization of civil society so that it, ultimately, can be left alone by the state.

As Patrick Deneen wrote in his own bestseller, “what we need today are practices fostered in local settings, focused on the creation of new and viable cultures, economics grounded in virtuosity within households, and the creation of civic polis life.” Centralization can’t get this done.