The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Conservatives need to get over their allergy to government action

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) speaks at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas, Tex., on July 10. (Emil Lippe for The Washington Post)

Many conservatives recognize that attracting a new, diverse, working-class voter base also entails a new, non-libertarian approach to economics. Unfortunately, it seems many Republicans are struggling with making that leap.

That was my takeaway from the recent American Economic Forum in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. There was a lot to like presented at the event — but it also showed that many in the conservative movement are unsure how to move forward

The 1980s-era conservative political renaissance rested in part on a comprehensive critique of the reigning liberal economic orthodoxy. Thinkers such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich August von Hayek painstakingly showed how government economic planning was wrongheaded and infeasible. They demonstrated that free markets were better at creating wealth and making productivity enhancing innovations. President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and others applied these insights to create the modern economic framework.

But applying these ideas consistently rested uneasily with the established political consensus in favor of extensive government economic intervention. Liberty-minded intellectuals might rail against widespread government involvement in the economy, but voters like free public education, subsidized health care and generous pensions. As a result, conservatism in practice has largely been tolerant of existing government economic interventions and resistant to new ones.

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This is no longer politically tenable. Upper-income voters want intervention to combat climate change, and working-class voters demand intervention to regulate immigration and reorder global trade. All prefer the Scylla of tax increases to the Charybdis of entitlement cuts as aging populations put fiscal pressure on health-care and retirement programs. Donald Trump’s shocking 2016 primary triumph and subsequent hold on Republican voters, accompanied by significant increases in minority voters support, has shown that the old dogma no longer held political sway even on the right.

The American Economic Forum explored these themes. Panels on climate change, the regulation of Wall Street and immigration discussed the tension between old approaches and new challenges. But speeches by some notable conservative leaders were most illuminative of the challenges ahead.

Both Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts and Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chair of the Republican Study Conference, were surprisingly open to new ideas. They spoke strongly about the need to fight China and provide high-paying jobs that allowed a worker to support a family. Each was supportive of regulating Big Tech, and Roberts even spoke about the need for “the common good” to limit businesses’ drive for profit. Banks’s call to “re-shore our manufacturing” was music to many ears in the audience, too.

But both struggled when it comes to forging that new path. Neither supported the recently signed Chips and Science Act that would invest in our vital semiconductor industry and return manufacturing to the United States. As they detailed specific problems they had with the law, it seemed they were letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. The Chips package should serve as a symbol of what government will need to do to reinvigorate an economy that builds things. The fact that both men remained opposed to this sort of government action suggests the old free-market orthodoxy will be harder to dislodge than one might hope.

They also stumbled on the old conservative bugaboo: entitlements. When Roberts was asked about what the government should do to support the family, he replied that the foundation was working on government family policy. But his tacit endorsement of Friedman’s negative income tax does not build confidence that the organization’s new proposals will break with old dogma. Banks also spoke of the need to enact “long-term spending controls,” something that would only matter if entitlement spending was also limited.

Past Republican efforts to limit the growth of entitlement spending after GOP landslides in 1994 and 2010 backfired politically, helping to reelect presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The fact is that 63 percent of Trump voters care more about keeping Social Security benefits than preventing tax hikes, and 45 percent care more about giving seniors on Medicare what they need than about controlling program costs. People who backed Obama in 2012 but Trump in 2020 were even more supportive of keeping entitlement programs over controlling costs. Any serious effort to retain these largely working-class voters — and attract more in the future — must come to grips with these views.

That can be done only if conservatism moves away from its decades-long allergy to government action. There’s a middle ground between government directing everything or nothing. As I showed in my book on Reagan, the conservative idol implicitly sanctioned government action if it helped people live dignified lives of their own choosing. Modern conservatism needs to refine Reagan’s insights and explicitly adopt a theory of when government should act to enhance people’s lives.

Conservative icon Russell Kirk showed that conservatism rests on the idea of prudent change. Today’s conservatives need to act prudently, but above all, they need to change. Only a renewed conservatism that abandons market fundamentalism will permanently attract the working class the movement needs to prevail.