Today Commentary Magazine ’s website features my contribution to a symposium on the future of conservatism that was published in their January issue.
These reflections are part of my larger concerns about the future of American conservatism, which I elaborate on in the Public Square in the forthcoming February issue, which will be up on the web in a few days.
My basic concern is this. The Republican Party today is very ideological. It has a strong free market orientation. I like that emphasis, because free markets provide a robust civic space for people to cooperate as they undertake productive work. It’s also a vast system of communication and coordination that for all its failures (and of course there are many) outperforms command-and-control efforts, however well intended. But free markets works effectively over the long haul, while we live in the short to medium haul, which is why political interventions into economic affairs are inevitable.
The overly ideological tenor of the Republican Party stands in the way of prudent inventions that are politically necessary, even if economically inefficient. I emphasize the crisis of middle class prosperity. Something will be done about this crisis. That’s because man is a political animal, and we will collectively seek to ameliorate problems, even if by doing so we create other problems and distortions. Welcome to the human condition.
The free market ideology also tends to sideline social conservatism, as we saw in the Romney campaign. The economic pressures eroding middle class prosperity are matched by social pressures. Marriage and family constitute the oldest and most effective social safety net. They also give people a sense of belonging, purpose, and comfort.
Economically adrift because of globalization, the middle of the middle is disoriented by the cultural revolutions of the last half century. Marriage, children, fidelity? Who speaks up for them anymore?
Some friends are frustrated that I cast my lot with “conservatism.” Isn’t faith greater? Doesn’t faith transcend partisan differences? Yes and no. Yes, of course people of faith—and for that matter good will—can come to different policy judgments. But as I read the sign of the times, modern progressivism has become profoundly antagonistic to moral and religious authority. Whether we like it or not, men and women of faith are now on the “Right,” at least when it comes to social issues.
As Midge Decter once said, “At some point you need to join the side you’re already on.” Quite right. But let’s not just join, let’s reform. By my reckoning, religious people bring a strong commitment to solidarity to public life. We need to leaven the American Right with that commitment. At present it’s too individualistic, too anti-government, too confident in the omni-benevolence of the marketplace. We can make these commitments more pragmatic, more humane, more in accord with the purpose of politics, which is to govern.