So, this is the new conservatism’s recipe for restored greatness: Political coercion shall supplant economic calculation in shaping decisions by companies in what is called, with diminishing accuracy, the private sector. This will be done partly as conservatism’s challenge to liberalism’s supremacy in the victimhood sweepstakes, telling aggrieved groups that they are helpless victims of vast, impersonal forces, against which they can be protected only by government interventions.
Responding to political threats larded with the money of other people, Carrier has somewhat modified its planned transfers of some manufacturing to Mexico. This represents the dawn of bipartisanship: The Republican Party now shares one of progressivism’s defining aspirations — government industrial policy, with the political class picking winners and losers within, and between, economic sectors. This always involves the essence of socialism — capital allocation, whereby government overrides market signals about the efficient allocation of scarce resources. Therefore it inevitably subtracts from economic vitality and job creation.
Although the president-elect has yet to dip a toe into the swamp, he practices the calculus by which Washington reasons, the political asymmetry between dispersed costs and concentrated benefits. The damages from government interventions are cumulatively large but, individually, are largely invisible. The beneficiaries are few but identifiable, and their gratitude is telegenic.
When, speaking at the Carrier plant, Vice President-elect Mike Pence said, “The free market has been sorting it out and America’s been losing,” Donald Trump chimed in, “Every time, every time.” When Republican leaders denounce the free market as consistently harmful to Americans, they are repudiating almost everything conservatism has affirmed: Edmund Burke taught that respect for a free society’s spontaneous order would immunize politics from ruinous overreaching — from the hubris of believing that we have the information and power to order society by political willfulness. In an analogous argument, Friedrich Hayek warned against the “fatal conceit” of believing that wielders of political power can supplant the market’s “efficient mechanism for digesting dispersed information.” The Republican Party is saying goodbye to all that.
Indiana’s involvement in the Carrier drama exemplifies “entrepreneurial federalism” — states competing to lure businesses. This is neither new nor necessarily reprehensible. There are, however, distinctions to be drawn between creating a favorable climate for business generally and giving direct subsidies to alter the behavior of businesses already operating in the state. And when ad-hoc corporate welfare, including tariffs, becomes national policy, it becomes a new arena of regulation, and hence of rent-seeking, which inevitably corrupts politics. And by sapping economic dynamism, it injures the working class.
The most widely discussed and properly praised book germane to today’s politics is J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” about the sufferings and pathologies of the white working class, largely of Scots-Irish descent, in Appalachia and the Rust Belt. This cohort, from which Vance comes, is, he says, one of America’s most distinctive subcultures, particularly in its tenacious clinging to traditional mores, many of them destructive.
His book has often been misread as primarily about the toll taken by economic forces — globalization, automation, etc. Actually, Vance casts a cool eye on the theory that “if they only had better access to jobs, other parts of their lives would improve as well.” His primary concern is with “lack of agency” and “learned helplessness” — the passive acceptance of victim status.
One theory of the 2016 election is that the white working class rebelled not just against economic disappointments but also against condescension, demanding not just material amelioration but, even more, recognition of its dignity. It is, however, difficult for people to believe in their own dignity when they believe that their choices are powerless to alter their lives’ trajectories. Eventually, they will detect the condescension in the government’s message that their fortunes are determined not by things done by them but by things done to them.
Such people are susceptible to charismatic presidential leadership, with its promise that executive power without limits can deliver them from unhappiness by delivering to them public goods. In contrast, there was dignity in the Joad family (of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”). When the Dust Bowl smothered Oklahoma, the Joads were not enervated, they moved west in search of work.
What formerly was called conservatism resisted the permeation of society by politics, and particularly by the sort of unconstrained executive power that has been wielded by the 44th president. The man who will be the 45th forthrightly and comprehensively repudiates the traditional conservative agenda and, in reversing it, embraces his predecessor’s executive swagger.