On January 19, in Ames, Iowa, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin—hitherto embodiment of Tea Party opposition to odious “crony capitalism”—took to the stage to endorse Donald Trump for President of the United States. Palin, who had catalyzed an insurgent cottage industry of laissez-faire resentment of the corrupt intermingling of Big Business and Big Government, endorsed someone who, in the eyes of many of us, was the decades-long corporeal manifestation of that very intermingling. The once-powerful Tea Party movement, always internally compromised by its warring constitutionalist and populist factions, effectively died that day in Ames, Iowa.
Indeed, since his stunning upset of Hillary Clinton on November 8, some of Donald Trump’s most important words and actions have borne out this skepticism. Trump, in planning an infrastructure splurge so massive it might make FDR blush, has spoken well of “pump-priming” Keynesianism. Chief strategist Steve Bannon—himself a self-described “economic nationalist”—has rubbed off so much on incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus such that Priebus is now forced to regurgitate illiberal “fortress America” talking points anachronistically befit for those halcyon days before economist David Ricardo introduced to the world the trade concept of comparative advantage. Nowhere was this Trumpist undermining of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” more evident than in the “visible hand of fascism” represented by the President-Elect’s gallingly cronyist strong-arming of Carrier. Even Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, a one-time happy warrior for laissez-faire and movement conservatism, has found himself corrupted by the taint of nationalist populism.
It happens to be the case that there is overwhelming empirical data supporting the proposition that the modern free enterprise system, as objectively measured by such metrics as economic growth and those lifted out of poverty in real, inflation-adjusted terms, is the greatest economic system mankind has ever devised. But if conservative free marketeers want to best staunch this Trumpist hemorrhaging of principles and hold Trump in line whilst preventing the transmogrification of the Republican Party from the party of Milton Friedman and Barry Goldwater into the party of Steve Bannon and Pat Buchanan, more is needed than a passing acquaintance with arcane economic data.
Conservatives should follow the lead of the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks in emphatically reasserting the moral case for free enterprise. Since such a moral underpinning of economic liberty is itself intrinsically inseparable from the philosophical precepts of the American experiment itself, the gravity of such a task is enduring and, indeed, timeless.
The American Founding was heavily influenced by European Enlightenment era political philosophy. At a concrete governing level, Madison’s constitutional framework of a tripartite separation of powers was directly borrowed from Montesquieu. (America’s system of federalism and dual spheres of sovereignty, by contrast, is actually more historically anomalous.) And at a more philosophically abstract level, Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence was itself heavily inspired by Hobbes and Locke. The Founders, in accordance with their Judeo-Christian worldview and conception of an inherently dignified mankind as made in the Image of God, fused these two latter great philosophers’ works by positing that a government of strictly limited powers is needed to preserve a dignified people’s natural rights (Locke) in a way that prevents the violence and anarchy of the “state of nature” (Hobbes).
This is all par for the course for anyone with a solid understanding of the American experiment. What is less widely understood, perhaps, is the all-important connection between Jefferson’s Declaration, Madisonian constitutionalism, and the political/economic liberty that the latter structurally secures.
Famously, the Declaration speaks of three core natural rights: those to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (It would have been nice had Jefferson not obfuscated the third natural right and replicated the clearer Lockean language of a natural right to “property,” as I lamented to a hapless Monticello tour guide last February, but I suppose it is time to let bygones be bygones.) The Constitution, read plainly and at face value, may appear to be a morally neutral document—unless, that is, one considers the strict limits the Constitution places on government power to be morally probative. To be sure, it is true that conservative theorists themselves have long been divided on the question; at the U.S. Supreme Court, originalist stalwarts Justice Clarence Thomas and the late Justice Antonin Scalia famously disagreed on the role of the Declaration in constitutional exegesis. But I would posit, as old Republican Senators Elihu Root of New York and Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts once did, that the Declaration’s asserted natural rights proclamation and the Constitution’s structural safeguards against political actors’ raw ambitions are inextricable “to the end that individual liberty might be preserved.”
Crucially, that very “individual liberty,” as secured by the Constitution’s structural features—never even minding the affirmative guarantees of the Bill of Rights itself—is itself the very Lockean/Jeffersonian natural right to liberty that the Founders viewed as intrinsically truthful. That natural right to liberty, in turn, is itself inextricable from its concomitant natural right to private property—a right that the great conservative Russell Kirk once described as being “…to some extent, an end in itself; but…also a means to culture; and…a means to freedom.” Indeed, without private property rights, freedom of contract, and economic liberty, there can be no broader political liberty; the Constitution concretely ensures this via its strict limitations on the federal government’s control over the economy, as the Ninth and Tenth Amendments only emphasize. And again, this natural right to economic freedom that is itself a fusion of the complementary natural rights to liberty and property is presupposed by the American experiment as being intrinsically moral insofar as it derives from our Creator.
Conservatives should rediscover and re-promulgate this moral understanding of our free enterprise system. By rededicating ourselves to Founding-era political theory and its understanding of economic liberty as indispensable to political liberty and thus intrinsically moral in its own right, we can wield an effective cudgel against those who would distort the Constitution’s contemplated role for the federal government in economic interventionism by subverting the all-important neutrality of the rule of law for overtly cronyist ends—such as what Trump and Pence did with Carrier.
Furthermore, a properly understood moral case for laissez-faire can also serve as an expression of a preference for “rules” in the classic rules versus standards debate. Much as constitutional originalism not only seeks to secure constitutional truth but also seeks to constrain judges from rogue decision-making deviations by confining them to hard and fast rules, so too can a constitutionally derived laissez-faire seek to constrain political actors from ad hoc adventures in feckless dirigisme. These ad hoc deviations away from tightly constraining economic rules into governmentally empowering economic standards, much like Trump in the Carrier deal or Justice Anthony Kennedy writing a U.S. Supreme Court opinion on any day ending in -y, all result in one thing: an individual desire to effectuate “pragmatism.” And as Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro aptly noted in National Review last month, such unconstrained and ideologically unmoored “pragmatism” is not at all a good thing:
…pragmatism is a progressive philosophy. There is no clear consensus on “what works.” This is why elections matter, and why political ideology matters. It’s an empty conceit of arrogant politicians that they alone can determine, based on expert reading of facts, the best solution; they can’t. How we view facts—our worldview—determines our action. There is no dispassionate problem-solver. There are only people who believe certain things about the world and masquerade as dispassionate problem-solvers.
Those people are almost invariably leftists. They believe that virtually all problems can be solved at the governmental level by a team of geniuses who can gaze into a crystal ball and determine the proper solution to America’s ills. They don’t need any coherent set of principles, or any root beliefs about human nature. The answers will appear to them if they simply look at the facts hard enough.
That’s all spot-on. The very notion of unconstrained governmental actors is anathema to conservatism and to a Judeo-Christian worldview that rightfully understands man as sinful and thus incapable of achieving utopian results in this realm. And with Trump, given his invariably sounding strongman rhetoric and bizarre infatuation with the likes of autocrat Vladimir Putin, never has there been a more acute need for emphasizing these firm constraints on power.
If conservatism is to maintain any intellectual coherence—indeed, if Donald Trump’s current and inevitably future dalliances with discredited Keynesianism and “economic nationalism” are to be effectively criticized—then conservatives simply must comprehend this basic truth. But to understand this basic truth will require an appreciation not just for the strikingly positive empirical results of free enterprise and economic liberty, but also for its intrinsic morality and inextricable connection to the American experiment itself. It is our best hope for preserving a conservative movement and a Republican Party actually dedicated to the purported economic values of which they so often speak.