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We Can't Turn Back the Clock

What does the Freedom Conservativism manifesto tell us about our recent past and proximate future? The bon mot about the Bourbons, often attributed to Talleyrand, comes to mind: They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. This anodyne document could have been written a generation ago; as the authors note, it was written a generation ago, in the 1960 Sharon statement. Less than artfully, it avoids the critical question of our time: Why is conservatism out of power and in disarray? How did we sign on to these principles and then get so much so wrong?

“Authoritarianism is on the rise both at home and abroad,” write the authors. Of course, they mean Donald Trump. There is much to abhor in Donald Trump’s behavior, but we should recall that he came to power in part by denouncing the “forever” wars which the overwhelming majority of the signers of this document supported. “The skyrocketing federal debt … is an existential threat to the future prosperity, liberty, and happiness of Americans” in large part due to $8 trillion worth of bungled attempts at nation-building and democracy promotion—not to mention more than 7,000 American dead, scores of thousands wounded, millions of American lives disrupted, plus 29,000 direct war casualties and more than 3.7 million indirect casualties, as well as 38 million made refugees.

What do we have to show for it? Iraq is now a dependency of Iran, thanks to our sponsorship of majority Shi’ite rule in that country; Afghanistan is ruled by the Taliban after our ignominious withdrawal; Syria is a shell with half its population displaced; and Libya is in chaos.

Undeterred by these blunders, we sabotaged the Minsk II compromise that would have granted Russian speakers local autonomy in a sovereign Ukrainian state, and in effect, dared Russia to invade. We now have another humiliating stalemate and the prospect of another ratchet decline in American influence. American influence has ebbed and China has filled the vacuum we left in the Middle East.

The manifesto’s formulation artfully blurs the line between what used to be called the Bush Freedom Agenda and Trump’s America First minimalism: “American foreign policy must be judged by one criterion above all: its service to the just interests of the United States. Americans are safest and freest in a peaceful world, led by the United States, in which other nations uphold individual liberty and the sovereignty of their neighbors.”

The problem of Big Tech is one of the existential issues of our time, and the absence of this issue from the manifesto is thunderous.

These are weasel words. What are the “just,” as opposed to the vital, “interests of the United States?” Is upholding individual liberty in other countries a raison d’état for the United States? “Just” is a moral criterion, not a strategic one. Russia has had a czar for five hundred years and China has had an emperor for five thousand. Does our sense of justice require us to pursue regime change and political transformation in those and other countries? The question is far from hypothetical. The Biden Administration made Putin’s removal a stated goal of American foreign policy; the Republican Party is deeply divided about this. In the case of China, is our objective to destabilize the present government and ultimately unseat it, as we did with the Soviet Union? Have we weighed the risks of such a venture?

Free markets are devoutly to be wished for. The George W. Bush Administration did not promote free markets. Instead, it let major banks take on record amounts of leverage in the market for home mortgage derivatives, and looked the other way as the banks criminalized millions of Americans by allowing them to falsify mortgage applications. After the fact, Republicans disingenuously blamed the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 on the Clinton Administration’s efforts to loosen mortgage lending standards for minorities. The market mechanism was corrupted by influential interests. That cost the Republicans eight years of political exile. The United States also lost roughly a quarter of its manufacturing employment under the George W. Bush Administration, and our current account balance fell to a record -6% of GDP. Large numbers of Americans have been left behind. That was Donald Trump’s message. What do the Freedom Conservatives have to say to them?

The emergence of a handful of giant tech monopolies with enormous influence on the body politic is also a free-market outcome. Natural monopolies can be as noxious as artificial ones. The network effect can leave us with only one site on which to post cat pictures, one on which to post political barbs, one spreadsheet, and one world processor. Politically, culturally, and economically, the problem of Big Tech is one of the existential issues of our time, and the absence of this issue from the manifesto is thunderous.

No conservative will object to “a constructive reform agenda that can restore America’s fiscal sustainability,” but there are very different ways to achieve this. R&D spending was 12% of spending at the peak of the Apollo program in 1965, and 5% of federal outlays under Reagan. Today it is just 2%. The absence of ambitious national initiatives like Kennedy’s moonshot or Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative depresses innovation and productivity growth. And without productivity growth, we cannot hope to close the gap between the liabilities of our retirement and health systems and our capacity to tax, not without imposing unconscionable hardship on the most vulnerable parts of our population.

Industrial policy, once anathema to conservatives, has become a core element of the New Right’s thinking. But there is a vast difference between allowing governments to pick winners, and putting government resources behind basic research while leaving the risk of commercialization to the private market.

The Freedom Conservatives want to dial the clock back to 2007 and ignore the issues which have fragmented the conservative movement. I do not think they will fool anyone. Donald Trump let the genie out of the bottle, and popular discontent with American governance—Republican as well as Democratic—demands an answer. From the Freedom Conservatives, the answer comes there none.

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