Whom do we serve: freedom, commerce, or some higher good? J.D. Vance, bestselling author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” asked this provocative question at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington DC this week.
“I serve my children,” Vance answered. It is the children’s protection, the continuation of the life cycle, and the perpetuation of societal norms that are the ultimate good and should be the ultimate aim of conservatism, he argued. Conservatism is not libertarianism, Vance added, a distinction that has blurred considerably in the last two decades and needs to be clarified again soon.
This fundamental difference is inimical to the national interest, conference speaker Mary Eberstadt declared, adding that if not nationalism, what is the alternative? Libertarianism, in its crudest form, represents pure individuals unhindered by any greater good or greater interest, which leads to atomization of politics.
“Diverse nations, without any civic nationalism, leads to anarchy,” Eberstadt added, offering the sexual revolution’s lead into to the natural conclusion of transgenderism as an example. “There has been a complete flight from biological reality,” Eberstadt said, as new sexual deviances are forcing stable “societies to partake in forced collective delusions.”
Vance agreed, saying libertarianism aims to ensure goods are being produced unhindered, without any care about whether the products are good or bad. Libertarians profess that “so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn’t be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce.”
Intervention Isn’t Always Bad
Libertarians are so skeptical of any power, however minimal, that they have forgotten power can be used skillfully for the greater good and that without any authority exerted over society, the law of the jungle applies. Needless to say, the effects cannot be ignored anymore.
Vance said conservatives have delegated all sorts of policy decisions to libertarians, such as trade and tech policies and sexual morals. The resultant decay of society — the sexual revolution, unchecked pornography, and social media impropriety — are a direct result of conservatives forgetting their Teddy Rooseveltian roots and refusing or failing even to contemplate using any authority to fix a clearly broken system.
There is a creed of “so what” prevalent in libertarianism, according to Eberstadt. “It would take Sophocles to explore the scale of the tragedy of opioid addiction,” Eberstadt said, explaining that the standard answer conservatives have given so far has been, “Well, yes, but they should have had more personal responsibility.”
But what if personal responsibility isn’t enough in an imperfect system? For the sake of theoretical argument, if one observes his family member slowly killing herself, shouldn’t he intervene? So why not when the scale is on a macro level?
Contrary to public opinion, there’s a libertarian rationale for intervention as well, Eberstadt pointed out. Sexual libertinism “leads to fatherless homes, which in turn leads to government dependence and greater federal power.” And that is the primary paradox. If the state is not to be empowered, and if individuals are failing in such scale that the micro problems are turning into macro, what is the alternative? The alternative is a healthy civic nationalism based on faith, flag, and family.
Conservatism Hasn’t Conserved Anything
This anti-libertarian current was prominent throughout the conference. There was a palpable sense that conservatism is not conserving anything, whether nation, community, or our future, and the reason is, perhaps, misapplied dogma about free markets and individual choice. Nowhere was this attack most prominent than the keynote of Tucker Carlson.
The biggest current threats to society come from private companies, not government, Carlson argued. That might sound theatrical, but the logic behind it was discussed as well. Today’s companies are not working in an ideal free market but within an oligopoly. A few giants control every single medium, and Google’s monopoly over the tech market, for example, is not similar to an earlier monopoly of General Motors, given that Google can influence personal choices and ideologies.
The very fact that these companies can influence and, in turn, can be controlled by a single ideology means the market is rigged, and therefore the traditional libertarian constraints are invalid. “Ask the conservatives, and their answer would be, ‘Build your own Google.’ It’s stupid,” Carlson said.
Ultimately, tech platforms use their monopolies as propaganda tools for one ideology. Why? Because woke capital has a vested interest in profit. Why do all the tech companies lean left? The simple reason is to double their cheap labor supply. According to Carlson, if women can be convinced to prioritize uncontrolled careerism and not family or happiness, the labor supply gets larger and cheaper, resulting in more profits for corporations.
Carlson continued, “Imagine, if you want to buy real estate, would you take advice from a homeless person? Then why would you take family and social advice from a bunch of people who are possibly the most unhappy in the entire country, from Sheryl Sandberg to the columnists of Teen Vogue?” Intriguingly, Carlson’s one book recommendation was Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “The Two-Income Trap.”
These Problems Need Solutions
Some were not amused. Charles Koch Institute’s Will Ruger tweeted that while there could be a lot of sympathy for Vance’s argument, limiting freedom is never the answer. Others expressed valid concerns with his line of argument as well.
I don’t think JD Vance’s characterization of libertarianism is accurate. Libertarians don’t need to be ecumenical about/indifferent to how people choose to exercise their freedom. Not all market decisions are necessarily morally good ones-but people ought to be free to make them.
— William Ruger (@WillRuger) July 16, 2019
Given the format, it is of course understandable that the conference didn’t have the scope of academic studies but rather polemic speeches attempting to conduct an autopsy of what is happening in America. That being said, nobody set forth specific policy suggestions at all.
Nobody discussed the ultimate aim of a “grand national project” nor offered an idea of how a common vision might be achieved. Is the government’s role to provide for massive federally funded drug addiction programs, or is its job to start gigantic 1890s-style infrastructure, road, naval, and mining projects with the goal of sustaining single-income and stable two-parent families? Who would start that, and how?
The GOP is hardly libertarian in foreign policy, as it has been hawkish about idiotic wars for the last two decades. It is hardly conservative in domestic politics, where it has accepted the sexual revolution, porn, and drug use as inevitable.
The GOP has, in fact, perpetuated a mix of the worst of two worlds, when average American (and Western) citizens would prefer exactly the opposite: a bit more state authority in the technology sector and in drug enforcement, a bit more cultural chauvinism and pride in Western culture, a bit more balance in upholding societal norms, and a bit less interventionism abroad. With the Western left disintegrating, this is a perfect time for the GOP to take up those platforms, but that requires policy formulations, not polemics.
A Return to Common-Man Conservatism
Ultimately, this appears to be a return to a more old-fashioned conservatism, one aimed at harnessing authority to maximize social good. The broad coalition between libertarians and conservatives might still exist on foreign policy, which is returning to its noninterventionist roots, but in domestic politics, the rift seems inevitable.
“If you think children killing themselves are problems, if you think people not having families, not being married, feeling more isolated are problems, then you need to be willing to use political power when it’s appropriate to solve those problems,” Vance concluded. Because simply saying that’s not for us to solve isn’t a solution. It will only make things worse.
“If people are spending too much time addicted to devices that are designed to addict them, we can’t just blame consumer choice, we have to blame ourselves for not doing something to stop it. If people are killing themselves because they’re being bullied in online chatrooms, we can’t just say parents need to exercise more responsibility,” he said.
Conservatives need to step up and start conserving what is good in and for society.