Why Freedom Conservatism Matters

Column: Ranks form in the battle for the American Right

(Wikimedia Commons)
July 21, 2023

On July 13, a group of journalists, policy wonks, and political activists opened a new front in the war for American conservatism. One-hundred-twenty-two signatories, led by Avik Roy of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity and John Hood of the John William Pope Foundation, affirmed 10 principles that define "Freedom Conservatism." It's a meaningful and necessary intervention in the ongoing debate on the Right over political economy that deserves to be read and shared.

Most of Freedom Conservatism will be familiar to anyone with knowledge or experience of the conservative movement before June 2015. Still, the statement of principles emphasizes several issues that have emerged recently: The authors call for reducing the cost of living, restoring fiscal sobriety, and addressing the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow while adhering to the Colorblind Constitution. The major theme is that individual liberty is necessary for human flourishing. "We call ourselves Freedom Conservatives," the organizers write, "not because freedom is our sole interest but because without individual and economic liberty, our other fundamental values and aspirations will prove impossible to sustain."

What's remarkable about the document is that it had to be written at all. Conservatives have placed freedom at the heart of their political program since the 1930s. They have resisted the encroaching control of centralized bureaucracies by appealing to the dignity of human life, the limited government of the Constitution, and the space that market economics provides for individual choice and competition.

This consensus held despite criticism from Libertarians and Traditionalists. It held because the principles and institutions of the American Founding anchored conservatives in a national history and culture that, among other things, have long been individualistic and suspicious of authority. It held because conservatives of all stripes perceived a common danger in unconstrained government and, perhaps most important, in the Soviet Union and global communism.

The consensus unraveled in the 1990s. Victory defeated American conservatism. The collapse of the Soviet Empire, disintegration of the Soviet Union, and China's turn toward state capitalism removed, or obscured, the Communist threat. Congress lowered marginal tax rates and exempted more Americans from income taxes. Lawmakers imposed time limits and work requirements on welfare, and caseloads fell. Cities adopted broken-windows policing and removed violent criminals from the streets, and crime declined. For a moment in 2001, and again from 2003 to 2007, Republicans enjoyed full control of the federal government for the first time in 50 years.

Success breeds confidence. It also leads to hubris and complacency. As President George W. Bush prosecuted the global war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, some younger conservatives warned that the Republican Party was neglecting the domestic concerns of its increasingly non-college voter base. The "Reform Conservative" group, writing in the pages of the Weekly Standard, National Review, and National Affairs, tried to modify conservative political economy to address the challenges of the early 21st century.

Reform Conservatives understood the dilemma facing conservatism. They grasped the distance between what would help voters and what Republican politicians were offering. Yet they also faced constraints. GOP officials did not feel that policy innovation was necessary. Reform Conservatives avoided the touchiest issues within the conservative movement, such as immigration, trade, and cultural change, where free-market economics pointed in one direction and grassroots Republicans in another. And Reform Conservatives lived and worked inside the Beltway. This was unfortunate because the only thing GOP voters hate more than the media is the Republican establishment.

In 2016, a plurality of the GOP primary electorate voted for a candidate who rejected large parts of the conservative consensus. Donald Trump opposed changes to Social Security and Medicare, by far the largest drivers of America's national debt. He demanded that the United States leave the North American Free Trade Agreement and rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He called for a southern border wall, a ban on Muslim immigration, and mass deportation of illegal immigrants. He rebuked the foreign policy of George W. Bush and adopted a unilateral-nationalist approach to international affairs. He drew equivalences between the United States and despotic regimes. He spoke more about sovereignty and strength than about freedom.

Trump won the general election thanks to narrow margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Republicans held unified control of government for the first time in a decade. And Trump's presidency altered the trajectory of the conservative movement, both political parties, the country, and the world. One irony of the Trump Era, however, is that his most effective policy achievements came from the conservative consensus he destroyed.

Any conservative president would have embraced the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, deregulation, and originalist judges. Ending the Affordable Care Act's health insurance mandate, approving energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and overturning Roe v. Wade and racial preferences in college admissions were longstanding goals of the American conservative mainstream. So, too, are the school choice programs that have proliferated at the state level since Trump left office. And Red States have benefited from in-migration thanks to low taxes, flexible labor markets, plentiful energy, and business-friendly governance.

The conservative consensus kept winning in practice, even as it was repudiated in theory. As early as 2016, a group of outsider intellectuals began to describe the conceptual foundations of what they saw as Trump's improvement on the conservative consensus. The project, called National Conservatism, took off. It has generated op-eds, websites, journals, books, conferences, and too many Twitter threads to count. Its adherents include at least one U.S. senator, a former star on the Fox News Channel, and the president of the Heritage Foundation. This revamped conservatism was set forth in "National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles," published in the summer of 2022. The revisions are illuminating.

Whereas pre-2016 conservatism was distinctly American, National Conservatism is global: Its signatories hail from Israel, Croatia, Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, Poland, France, and Hungary. Whereas pre-2016 conservatism held the Declaration of Independence in esteem, the National Conservative statement ignores the Declaration and references "the Constitution of 1787" once.

National Conservatives do endorse federalism, a tenet of American constitutionalism, except "in those states or subdivisions in which law and justice have been manifestly corrupted, or in which lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution reign." Immorality and dissolution are left undefined, and what happens when the Left gets to set these terms is not said. "Where a Christian majority exists," National Conservatives say, "public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private" (my emphasis). The First Amendment says otherwise. Of course, the First Amendment wasn't included in "the Constitution of 1787."

As much as one may disagree with large parts of National Conservatism, one cannot dismiss its significance. It has influenced the Trump administration (if not Trump the man) as well as Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Add businessman Vivek Ramaswamy to the mix, and candidates who reflect National Conservative views command 78 percent of the national GOP primary vote. That is a sign of a party transformed. And the transformation may well accelerate. A lot of the energy behind National Conservatism comes from young people.

For the rising generation that came of age during the Trump presidency, there has been no compelling alternative to National Conservatism. There have been no groundbreaking works of free market economics and, other than George Will's Conservative Sensibility, no major text making the case for ordered liberty. Intellectual activity has run in the opposite direction—toward the state, toward planning, toward tribal identity, toward arbitrary power, toward personalist rule.

That is why Freedom Conservatism matters. The statement isn't perfect. Hugh Hewitt observes that it ought to mention property rights. Andrew T. Walker notes that it departs from the 1960 Sharon Statement by neglecting transcendent values and the existence of God. My own manifesto—yet to be written—would include additional language on human rights and democracy and the mediating institutions of family, community, vocation, and faith.

The point is that, after spending years on defense, conservatives who believe in political and economic freedom have drawn a line. They have taken a stand. They have offered the Right a choice, not an echo of Trump. One path leads away from the Founding and toward marginalization and contempt. The other builds on the American political tradition and resonates with public aspirations for advancement and growth. Choose wisely.

Matthew Continetti's The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism is now out in paperback with a new afterword by the author.

Published under: conservatism , Feature