Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation by reportedly nailing 95 theological theses to the door of Wittenberg’s church. The website of Oren Cass’s new think tank, American Compass, could be the start of a similar, long-overdue Conservative Reformation.

American Compass has lofty ambitions. Per its mission statement, it seeks to “restore an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity.” In case that’s too abstract, the website highlights a quotation from 19th-century Whig statesman Henry Clay. “Free trade! Free trade!” the quotation goes. “The call for free trade, is as unavailing as the cry of a spoiled child. … It never has existed; it never will exist."

This statement is a frontal assault on the most hallowed principle of modern conservative economic policy — that market transactions should be given preeminent weight when setting public policy. That idea is often observed in the breach, as are so many ideals. Taken seriously, as many doctrinaire libertarians do, it means the abolition of most of the modern state and especially its social welfare programs. In the hands of movement conservatives, it has meant an unyielding opposition to any new taxes and almost all new government programs, as well as a strong presumption in favor of cutting regulation and spending wherever possible. Above all, it has meant that government cannot “pick winners and losers” and must remain passive and silent even if the market’s movements create losers of millions of Americans.

Cass and his band of conservative reformers thus stand athwart this tide of recent conservative history yelling “Stop.” Cass argues that “free-market fundamentalism, so often presented as the sophisticated way to understand economics, [is] pathetically simplistic.” This means a renewed appreciation for elements in conservative thinking that have long been cast aside in favor of economic and individualistic reductionism.

A simple idea undergirds American Compass: Politics comes first. Libertarianism’s central principle is that politics is simply the pen name for a collection of thieves. “Taxation is theft,” one of their mottoes, is a pithy distillation of this idea. Cass and his allies, however, stand for the opposite idea: Only democratic politics permits the collective judgment of the people to be heard, distilled and implemented. That judgment has a healthy respect for markets and economic freedom, but it has the wisdom to know when liberty becomes license and when the freedom of some is injurious to the health of society. In those cases, Cass and American Compass hold, it is not only proper for society to intervene in the market but also necessary for it to do so.

This intervention can address internal as well as external threats, as two introductory essays on the site show. One essay, from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), emphasizes the damage that can come to a nation from malign foreign actors empowered by naive economic policies. He argues that national security ultimately depends upon a nation’s ability to produce the materials needed for self-defense by itself. If a nation must import its food, its energy and its manufactured goods from abroad, it is dependent upon other nations for its survival. The current coronavirus crisis, Cotton contends, has “laid bare a new dependence on a hostile power, Communist China.” This, he and American Compass argue, must stop regardless of what that means for “free trade.”

Another essay, from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), addresses the damage that free-market fundamentalism has for our internal health. He contends that the “loss of dignified, productive work” to other nations through the pursuit of economic efficiency “poses an existential threat to the common good of our nation.” Prioritizing economic efficiency in domestic policy, he writes, has “only served to separate the components that compose a functional civil society: family, work, faith, community, and the mutual obligations of citizenship.” Those ends, not the “joyless quest for joy,” are what the United States is about.

Luther and the other reformers sought to return Christianity to its purer roots. Cass and his merry band of brothers and sisters seek to do the same for American conservatism, and other essays on the site show how the roots of American conservatism go much further back in time than William F. Buckley Jr.'s founding of National Review. Wells King’s essay, for example, finds them in the ideas of Alexander Hamilton, Clay and Abraham Lincoln, and one could also find them in the principles of men of more recent vintage such as Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

American Compass aspires to be the tool with which future conservative leaders can guide the American ship of state. Those men and women ignore it at their peril.

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