Free-Marketeers Have Taken Social Conservatives for Granted

Capitalists need to make the case that prosperity is crucial for protecting tradition and security.


For many free-market advocates, the recent conservative dalliance with noncapitalist policies has been as stunning as it has been swift. While President Trump’s antipathy to free trade was well-known, his and other conservatives’ sudden embrace of aggressive antitrust actions was more surprising. Now self-described “national conservative” thinkers are pushing industrial policy—government planning that meddles with economic decision-making to promote favored industries or social outcomes.

This turn has been long in coming. For decades, capitalists have failed to present their arguments in the language of traditional conservatism. They took social conservatives’ support for the free market for granted.

Values underlie most people’s political preferences. In America, cultural cognition theorists like the late Aaron Wildavsky have identified three main value groups. One centers on freedom, one on fairness, and one on the socially conservative values—identity, security and order.

For a long time, free trade ticked all three boxes. It most easily caught the eye of those who value freedom, but it also appealed to those who emphasize fairness. The free flow of goods lowered prices, helping the poor most of all, and enhanced the opportunity for poorer nations to get richer. Many social conservatives, meanwhile, liked free trade because America was best at it. They took pride in the success of American businesses, which formed part of the nation’s identity. As President Calvin Coolidge said in 1925, “The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.”

That profound concern led many advocates of free markets to assume social conservatives would always support them. Accordingly, free-marketeers made little effort to show how capitalism complements tradition and enhances security. Fluent in the language of liberty and working hard to promote free enterprise in terms of fairness, capitalists thought they had covered all their bases. Besides, the specter of communism—atheist, materialist and revolutionary—kept social conservatives in the free-market fold.

This oversight has had consequences. Now, more than a quarter-century after the fall of the Soviet Union, many social-conservative intellectuals are left unsure of capitalism’s value.

Trade with China and the developing world in some cases interfered with Americans’ ability to produce, sell, invest and prosper. Nowhere is this felt more keenly than in manufacturing. Shuttered factories heightened insecurity and disorderliness, feeding the rise of opioids and crystal meth and eroding communities. In response, some conservatives have turned to government to step in to protect their once-secure way of life.

Here the free-marketeer’s first instinct—to celebrate creative destruction and denounce “Luddites” for blocking economic efficiency—betrays him. These arguments ring hollow to people whose towns are the center of that destruction, and who see creative types thriving in areas that reject their values, such as Silicon Valley. If free-marketeers don’t learn to speak in terms of conservative values, they won’t be heard.

Yet this shouldn’t be too hard. As Margaret Thatcher observed, “the facts of life are conservative.” No industrial policy will stop the laws of supply and demand or solve the knowledge problem that fells central planning every time. The basic economic truths are as much a part of what conservative idol Russell Kirk called the “permanent things” as traditional mores are.

Conservatives will have to turn to the free market to find gainful employment for former factory workers and rejuvenate their communities. Deregulation will be vital to unleashing local growth, and conservatives still know that. Fracking, for instance, draws broad support. Policies that seem to benefit mostly large companies with little or no connection to American identity are a tougher sell.

Free-market advocates should focus on how and why small businesses grow big, on energy policy, and on the role of business as the primary vehicle for investment and saving through mechanisms like 401(k)s. Without compromising the value of freedom, they should also avoid being dismissive of conservative fears.

The free-market coalition is in urgent need of repair. If enough conservatives join progressives in seeing free trade as a threat to their values, America could end up with protectionist policies for the foreseeable future.

We must not allow the land of the free to be led down the road to serfdom. But it’s worth stressing that this path threatens not only liberty but also the American way of life. Without a strong economy, towns will shed more jobs. That means more insecurity, disorder and false solutions from populists that encourage government to grow at community’s expense.

Originally published at The Wall Street Journal.