Many conservatives rightly saw these words as a challenge to the reigning neo-libertarian economic orthodoxy. And so they struck back — hard. The gentlest was William McGurn, writing in the Wall Street Journal, who criticized the idea that federal government intervention can ever be successful. National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson, however, minced no words. He denounced Rubio’s “shallow moralizing” and said the senator’s philosophy was similar to the “familiar moral basis of fascist economic thinking.”
Other critics avoided Williamson’s over-the-top comparison but basically agreed. Their basic contention is that the government can’t do anything right and has no moral basis to interfere in private economic activity. As National Review Online editor Charles C.W. Cooke, wrote, “at the national level, politics should be economic liberty.”
Rubio had his defenders, but few were as clear about the philosophic issues at stake as his detractors. Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute praised Rubio for “trying to address one of the problems that have debilitated our politics,” while AEI’s Michael R. Strain went a bit further and agreed with the senator’s shift from emphasizing the entrepreneur to championing the worker. The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass, however, went straight at Rubio’s critics at the philosophic level, contending that liberty was not the only good the federal government should be concerned with when setting economic policy.
This is the crux of the GOP’s debate. Libertarians, who are philosophically opposed to any federal government action, have insinuated themselves into the conservative intellectual infrastructure over the past three decades. As a result, Republican intellectual orthodoxy now says that taxes can never be raised; that any government program is bound to fail and, hence, should be opposed; and that the only direction government spending should move is backward. Hence the 2011 spectacle where every candidate for president in “the party of Reagan” said they would oppose a hypothetical deal that raised taxes by $1 for every $10 in public spending cuts.
President Trump’s shocking victory in the 2016 Republican primaries should be the clearest proof imaginable that even GOP voters reject the clerics’ nonsense. The vast majority of Republicans want liberty and security, opportunity and redistribution. They want to get the balance right and reject the idea that any attempt to find that balance is “fascism.”
Nor is this a newfound desire. The Republican Party was the party of tariffs from its founding through its devastating defeat in 1932. It briefly regained power when President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed “Modern Republicanism,” which rejected both socialism and a return to the pre-New Deal era. Reagan himself continued this tradition, embracing the core innovations of the New Deal while opposing the socialist desire to make collective government action the only morally legitimate response to every social concern. Rubio’s position stands squarely within this consensus.
Most Republican politicians know this and politely sidestep the libertarian high priesthood’s demands. But they remain enthralled to their liturgy and hence never truly break free from their influence. This cripples their ability to persuade Americans that they believe in the balance most Americans want. And so good men like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) find themselves without the words to respond when they are attacked as cruel Mr. Potters or Scrooges who value profits at the expense of people.
Rubio’s speech is a worthy attempt to write a new liturgy that explains in theory what most Republicans believe in fact. That threatens the priesthood’s power, and so they will fight back with all their strength. But most Americans believe their libertarian dogma would turn our country into a den of thieves. Time now for Rubio and others to cast them out and restore conservatism to its rightful place in the Republican temple.