The Right’s Search for Direction

“It is generally understood that those who support the ‘conservatives,’ expect them to uphold the system which has been camouflaged by the loose term of ‘the American way of life.’ The moral treason of the ‘conservative’ leaders lies in the fact that they are hiding behind that camouflage: they do not have the courage to admit that the American way of life is capitalism, that that was the politico-economic system born and established in the United States, the system which, in one brief century, achieved a level of freedom, of progress, of prosperity, of human happiness, unmatched in all the other systems and centuries combined—and that that is the system which they are now allowing to perish by default.”

— Ayn Rand, “Conservatism: An Obituary

The words written above were first spoken by Ayn Rand before an audience of students and faculty at Princeton University in December of 1960. They could just as well have been written this week. Fifty-seven years later, through twenty eight congresses and as many election years, through five Republican presidencies, fourteen national conventions, libraries of tracts, and countless hours of debate, we find ourselves in the same predicament. Unlike when Rand spoke, at which time President Eisenhower faced Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, or when she published it two years later, after President Kennedy had been elected and Democrats stood narrowly shy of two-thirds majorities in both houses, Republicans are now in the ascendant. They have won seats in three of the last four elections, secured the presidency, and hold thirty-two legislatures and thirty-three governorships. Under such conditions, if one were to listen to either the hopeful promises of six months ago or the ever-present fear-mongering on the left, we should be seeing a rash of deregulation and the retrenchment of government as capitalism is allowed to either flourish or “run wild,” depending upon who you ask.

To conservatives’ credit, there appear to be several notable moves toward reducing the size and scope of government. The Trump administration, with Betsy Devos leading the Department of Education, is touting its intentions to return control of education to states and localities and largely remove the federal government from the equation. Trump’s insistence upon maintaining a progressive income tax is both economically unjustified and proves his milquetoast commitment to eliminating cronyism, but his planned reduction of the corporate tax rate is semi-laudable.

These positive moves, however, are beset on all sides by indications of conservatives’ unconfidence and selectivity as they pick and choose the issues on which they support capitalism and those on which they prefer to abandon it. Trump surrendered any Republican effort to abolish the Export-Import Bank—a blatant and unapologetic subsidy machine—after speaking to an executive at Boeing, which just happens to be the Ex-Im Bank’s largest recipient of subsidies. Rick Perry now serves as secretary of a department which he argued five years ago should no longer exist. The GOP under Trump appears to continually battle the temptation to punish foreign trade and impose protectionist policies that, aside from being rights-violating intrusions into free exchange, would be economically devastating. And the spending bill passed this week pretends to address concerns with a growing budget deficit and national debt but merely trades horses until both sides are able to spend more of other people’s money.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is the current struggle to define a plan of action on healthcare. The first attempt to pass the Republican-driven American Health Care Act (AHCA) was a very public failure for Speaker Paul Ryan and GOP leadership, with the House Liberty Caucus refusing to sign on to what amounted to a Republican ObamaCare with some minor modifications that failed to solve its basic problems. This week, Republicans finally succeeded in narrowly passing through the House (though not yet the Senate) a negotiated and revised version of that legislation. True to form, the left and the popular media are already in a stir about the measure, characterizing it as a repeal of ObamaCare and throwing in a dash of conspiracy theory hysteria for good measure.

Unfortunately, the new bill is by no means a repeal of ObamaCare. As Michael Cannon writes in The Hill,

“House Republicans went behind closed doors and emerged with a bill that does not repeal the core provisions of ObamaCare, and therefore cannot begin to repair the damage those provisions are causing. ObamaCare’s core provisions are the “community rating” price controls and other regulations that (supposedly) end discrimination against patients with preexisting conditions… Community rating is the reason former president Bill Clinton called ObamaCare “the craziest thing in the world” where Americans “wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.”

Community rating is why women age 55 to 64 have seen the highest premium increases under ObamaCare. It is the principal reason ObamaCare has caused overall premiums to double in just four years. Community rating literally penalizes quality coverage for the sick, to the point where Harvard economists found patients with multiple sclerosis and other high-cost conditions “cannot be adequately insured” under ObamaCare. It is the driving force behind ObamaCare’s narrow networks and the exclusion of premier hospitals.

ObamaCare is community rating. The AHCA does not repeal community rating. Therefore, the AHCA does not repeal ObamaCare. In fact, Republicans are modifying ObamaCare’s community-rating price controls and other regulations in ways that will accelerate ObamaCare’s race to the bottom… Preserving community rating will preserve so much of the instability in ObamaCare’s Exchanges (and guarantee that Republicans will take the blame) that voters will demand bailouts (and will vote for candidates who provide them).”

Cannon argues that the motivating factor behind Republican support for the AHCA is the $1 trillion in tax cuts and cuts to government spending. He counters by pointing out that the AHCA will create “armies of pro-tax voters who undo the bill’s tax cuts and spending cuts.” I can’t disagree with any part of this as a summary of the bill’s effects nor as an explanation for much of the GOP’s support for the AHCA in particular (and, as a general rule, I wouldn’t recommend debating Cannon on healthcare policy, period). However, I believe that something more needs to be said—not about why the GOP chose the particular terms of the AHCA that it did, but about why it is so unwilling to do what it said it would do for the last seven years: repeal ObamaCare, full stop. Why not pass the one-sentence ObamaCare repeal bill written by Rep. Mo Brooks in March—“Effective as of Dec. 31, 2017, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is repealed, and the provisions of law amended or repealed by such Act are restores or revived as if such Act had not been enacted”?

The role of special interests is certainly considerable where ObamaCare is concerned, and it is impossible to preclude a significant role for those interests in the present congress in persuading Republicans to revise their positions on healthcare from “repeal” to “repeal and replace” to “repeal, replace, and relief.” I would venture another, somewhat stronger explanation, though: many Republicans largely don’t believe in capitalism, at least not on the hard questions.

They believe, as Ayn Rand said, in an “American way of life,” opaquely defined as a hodge-podge of some economic freedom and some economic controls, some social freedom and some social controls, some foreign policy of self interest and some of self-sacrifice. That is to say: their notion of the “American way of life” is ambiguous, almost deliberately so, and allows conservative politicians to support a given policy in one moment and oppose it in the next. Rather than supporting a consistent political philosophy of laissez-faire that respects individual rights in all arenas of human life, they reject concrete principles as dogmatic and decry any attempt to tie policy down to secularly derived principles of morality and ethics. They believe, as Dick Cheney once put it, “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”

In economics, they do not consistently believe that the market order is capable of fostering human flourishing and productive activity without an external order imposed by the state. Despite leftists’ characterizations of the right as having an excess exuberance for the free market, in reality, when pushed, conservatives will often present the most fevered possible defense of government interventionism and the utter chaos to which the world would devolve were it not for the use of the state to save man from his own stupidity, irrationality, and moral weakness.

This position is no coincidence, however. It is the necessary product of conservatism’s fundamental philosophy, which argues for freedom on the basis of faith, tradition, and human depravity. I have addressed these arguments at length in my essay, “The Philosophy of Capitalism.” Suffice it to say, however, that the argument from faith neglects the potential for developing and promoting an objective, secular morality on which individuals of diverse faiths or no religious faith can agree and on which they can base a rationally derived social system. The argument from tradition treats subservience to the rule of the past as a standard of goodness without proper regard for the objective merits of the rule and their consequences for human life. And the argument from depravity, which says that man is not moral enough to control and lead others, concedes everything to tyrants that they need in order to claim its inverse: that man is not moral enough to be left free. The conservative vision of man is that of a fallen being, persistently undone by his own weakness, and that the construction of a proper social system should be based on the recognition of that weakness rather than any claim to human greatness and what is required to foster the best in humankind.

Beginning from such a starting point, how could conservatives ever possibly embrace the notion of a free, functioning spontaneous order of the market that Scottish economist Adam Ferguson described as ““the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”? If man, in their vision, is a fallen creature, wretched and helpless, how could he succeed without the ordering of a central authority, nudging him to do what is efficient or what is morally right? In their vision, he does not know what is good for him but must be told or directed in how to live by the proper moral authorities.

Many conservatives will object to this characterization, and, to be fair, it does not describe the explicit views of the average Republican voter by a longshot. Rather, it forms the fundamental philosophy of conservative intellectualism, which trickles down in disparate ideas to form a culture and set of popular values that, though perhaps never explicitly recognized by a voter, will nonetheless inform his estimation of whether the society in which he lives requires more or less government control in order to succeed and will affect the selection of candidates between whom he can choose.

Where does this leave them? In short: nowhere. When Dick Cheney says “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose,” he neglects to mention that without that principle one has no conception of what it means to win or lose, nor of the means by which to achieve victory. Republicans thus come to the crude, narrow view of victory as electoral victory but stand dumbstruck once they have secured the power they sought, realizing that they lack the direction and vision to wield that power meaningfully towards the achievement of a chosen set of values.

Thus, what we see before us is not the accident of inadequate leadership (though leadership could stand some significant improvements), the mere pull of special interests (though those always exist), nor the influence of the left (for, as much as Republicans want you to forget it, Democrats can do effectively nothing to stop whatever legislation Republicans truly want to pass). Ultimately, the reason why GOP leadership cannot corral its party members over a shared set of values, why conservative politicians do not give special, favor-seeking interests the boot in favor of laissez-faire, and why the left continually succeeds in getting more and more government control over the economy even when Republicans are in the majority, is that Republicans are unable to identify and consistently present a moral opposition to the left’s vision for America. They are unable to identify and consistently defend capitalism as a moral and economic ideal. Thus, when it comes to specific policy proposals and legislation on healthcare, taxes, deregulation, etc., they remain unconfident of the moral value of their actions and of the success that would be realized by markets in the absence of government controls. Until they find that direction, that synthesis of the moral and practical that can only be realized through capitalism, they will forever retreat their ground in the face of an ever more solidified, morally confident, and dangerous philosophy of egalitarian nihilism on the left.

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