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03/14/2013 10:00 am ET Updated May 14, 2013

Market Radicals: The GOP's Betrayal of Conservatism

The budget just released by House Republicans--and the ascendancy of Paul Ryan, its architect--marks the culmination of an important, long-term shift in the Republican Party. Over the last several decades, the party has abandoned political conservatism and embraced its opposite: an agenda of radical, experimental reform.

I often tell my students that there are only two genuine forms of conservatism alive in America today. The first is "values" conservatism, with its desire to preserve a traditional way of life premised on hard work and self-restraint, sexual modesty and heterosexual monogamy. The second is the strain of environmentalism that urges us to protect the natural world, live closer to the land, reduce our consumption and economic growth, and resist the allure of ambitious technological experiments.

Too often, we use the term "conservatism" loosely, to describe almost anything the Republican Party happens to endorse. But using it in this way mangles a deep and influential political tradition. Modern conservatism was born in the aftermath of the French Revolution, as a reaction to the Promethean hubris of revolutionary planners. In trying to reengineer European society using rational principles dictated from above, revolutionaries had unleashed tremendous destruction, instability, and violence. At its very core, conservatism is about protecting human lives and institutions from such radical, self-inflicted upheaval. The British conservative Michael Oakeshott, whose essay "On Being Conservative" remains one of the finest reflections on the subject, describes conservatism this way:

It is a disposition appropriate to a man who is acutely aware of having something to lose which he has learned to care for; a man in some degree rich in opportunities for enjoyment, but not so rich that he can afford to be indifferent to loss.

Conservatives, he says, are those who understand how difficult it is to change human societies for the better and how easy it is to change them for the worse. Conservatives have therefore always preferred "the familiar to the unknown," "the tried to the untried," and "the actual to the possible."

As of the 2013 Congress, fortified by libertarian ideological purists, the Republican Party can no longer claim this tradition as its own. Though "values" conservatives still have a place in the party, they are an increasingly ineffectual minority, especially at the federal level. The dominant faction--among the elites who fund and speak for the party--is now driven by a very different ideology. It believes that the size and scope of government should be vastly reduced, that public services should whenever possible be privatized, and that market principles should be extended into ever more areas of human life--from education to retirement savings to prisons. Whatever the merits of this ideology, it is simply a mistake to call it conservative.

Let us begin with the obvious: though they deliver vast economic benefits, markets are tremendously disruptive forces in human life. Even capitalism's ardent defenders acknowledge as much. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, for example, famously described capitalism as a program of "creative destruction." Its transformative effects are evident everywhere we look: technological innovation (smart phones, GPS devices) is constantly changing the habits and textures of everyday life. Revolutions in agricultural technology have transformed the human relationship to the land and, in America as in the developing world, brought massive dislocation and loss of independence to rural communities. Corporations have harnessed technologies so powerful that simple acts of corporate negligence (think British Petroleum) can destroy whole ecosystems and the livelihoods that have depended on them for centuries.

Globalization has accelerated and deepened capitalism's dislocating effects. In the mid-twentieth century, successful industrial corporations brought stability and identity to American communities. They enabled generations of workers to achieve rising wages and lasting prosperity. Through tax revenue and philanthropic investment, they built and sustained towns and cities, not just on the coasts but throughout middle America. The case could still be made that business was a conservative force in American life.

Today, the rules have changed. Jobs are moved overseas almost overnight, whole production lines packed up and quickly relocated to reap regulatory benefits. Wages and benefits for working-class families have eroded as companies shift their domestic workforce to part-time contracts. Meanwhile, the professional class must relocate, often many times, from one industry to another, from their hometowns to coastal (and international) hubs, to succeed. Take a drive down the shuttered Main Streets of Midwestern towns and cities: the tension between market capitalism and the needs of settled, traditional American communities has hardly ever been greater.

Why, then, should true conservatives remain infatuated with unregulated--or minimally regulated--markets? The answer lies partly in the history of the twentieth century: conservative anti-communists came to see markets as buffers against social engineering. In market societies, economic decisions are left to individuals and private firms; the government's power is correspondingly limited. Markets were an alternative to the inefficiency and inhumanity of centrally planned economies, and any expansion of the regulatory state could be seen as a first step down this dangerous path. Moreover, compared to the utopian ambitions of social planners, the profit motive seemed relatively mundane and tractable. Societies that channeled their best and brightest into business careers rather than powerful state bureaucracies would be freer and more stable. Holding the line against an expansionist state would protect private life and property from tyranny and political hubris and make the world safer for the ordinary concerns of ordinary people.

In age of Stalin and Mao, this was a cogent, defensible view. But that age is gone. Communism, and with it the revolutionary dreams of the hard left, has collapsed. Utopian social planning is nowhere to be found in the world's affluent democracies (not even in Scandinavia, which long ago made its peace with market capitalism). In fact, as capitalism has grown more disruptive, democratic governments everywhere have become less so. America is no exception: the American Left's agenda, in the age of globalization, has become increasingly conservative. It now labors to shield human lives (and the natural environments that nourish them) from the most dislocating effects of global markets. It does this by providing welfare benefits and job training, by regulating the financial industry and subsidizing education, by controlling environmental damage. Its use of state power is defensive, not utopian.

In fact, by any reasonable standard, it is the Republican agenda that has become radical. In the world as we know it--a world of massive international corporations and densely interconnected global economies--the libertarian agenda of minimal government and maximal privatization is as yet untried. America is closer to realizing it than any other affluent democracy: our tax rates and welfare spending are among the lowest in the modern industrialized world. But as Republicans have made clear, they think American government is far too big, far too aggressive in its regulation, and far too profligate. They want a pre-New Deal government for an age of truly global economic and ecological challenges. In the world as we know it, then, the libertarian agenda is a bold and unprecedented experiment.

But to see how thoroughly the GOP has abandoned its conservative heritage, we have to return to the moral roots of conservatism. Throughout much of the twentieth century, conservatives understood the tremendous moral costs of reckless social and economic experiments. They saw how readily utopian experimenters imposed acute suffering on their people for the sake of distant, intangible political ideals. They saw how often utopian fervor underwrote tremendous moral callousness. The moral core of twentieth-century conservatism lay in its acute awareness of the fragility of the human good, and in its commitment to protect ordinary lives and time-tested political institutions from self-inflicted turbulence.

In the current Republican Party, these moral lessons are nowhere to be found. Today, it is Republicans who are willing to impose suffering on the vulnerable, and to dismantle successful institutions (such as social security), for the sake of abstract ideals. Republicans are eager to cut social services and welfare benefits, to gut consumer and environmental protection, to de-fund unemployment benefits and job-re-training, to end payroll tax breaks. Yet these are precisely the institutions that have helped bring a measure of security and stability to the lives of working Americans, especially in times of economic hardship.

Republicans defend these sacrifices as regrettable steps needed to balance the budget and restore fiscal sanity to Washington. This allows them to hide their incipient radicalism--for what could be more conservative than fiscal prudence? But anyone keeping track of the party's record over the past twenty years knows just how misleading all of this is. In fact, fiscal crisis has become the Republicans' favorite tool for forcing government contraction. This is the party's worst-kept secret: they slash public revenues when they come to power, which precipitates fiscal crisis--the massive Bush tax cuts contributed greatly to the current fiscal mess--and then they demand painful reductions in public spending. Does anyone seriously believe that, if only the budget were balanced and the deficit paid--as they were under Bill Clinton in the late 1990s--the Republican Party would stop demanding painful cuts to public services? Fiscal prudence is not their aim; their aim is to "starve the beast." In other words: the aim is to inaugurate a bold political experiment--an experiment in market radicalism--even at the cost of considerable human suffering.

Market radicalism boils down to a single, shining article of faith: it holds that, freed from government interference, unburdened by regulatory oversight, markets will bring widely shared prosperity whose benefits will more than compensate for its disruptive costs. There is no doubt that minimally regulated markets create great wealth. Whether this wealth could ever be widely shared without ambitious government oversight and redistribution is uncertain at best. In today's global economy, this great libertarian hope stands, arguably, on shakier ground than ever. During America's last three economic recoveries, for example, the benefits of economic growth flowed almost entirely to the wealthy; working-class families lost ground each time, even with help from government. Meanwhile, the impending global climate crisis--among other imminent environmental disasters--is teaching us the full extent of under-regulated capitalism's potential costs.

I have no desire to try to settle this empirical debate here; I only want to point out the obvious: facing such profound empirical uncertainty, facing unprecedented economic integration and ecological risk, and with the stakes as high as they are for billions of us, true conservatives would never push America headlong into an austere--and potentially catastrophic--experiment. Never. Radicals, on the other hand, might just double down on their faith and move to purge their party of its heretics. Is there any doubt which of these paths the current GOP has chosen?

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