February 15, 2021 Reading Time: 13 minutes

Political paternalism – the belief that those in government possess more knowledge, wisdom, and ability to plan, guide, and direct various aspects of people’s lives better than those people themselves – comes in many forms. The American “progressive” movement is euphoric with being, once again, close to power with the new Biden Administration in the hope of intensifying and extending their version of political paternalism on the country. 

But there are “conservative” brands of political paternalism, as well. Now in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s defeat in the presidential election, visions of a new conservative paternalism are being offered to “save” the conservative movement from both the collectivism of the progressives and from the free market libertarians who are accused of ignoring that there is more to life than liberty and material wealth. An example of such a call for a new conservative political paternalism may be found in an article by Oren Cass, “A New Conservatism: Freeing the Right from Free Market Orthodoxy” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2021).  

Mr. Cass served as a domestic policy director for Mitt Romney’s presidential bid in 2012, and in 2020 founded “American Compass,” a think-tank focused on post-Trump conservative politics, after having worked for a time as a research fellow with the Manhattan Institute. He never uses the term “political paternalism” in this article; it nonetheless remains a fact that what he advocates is a “conservative” agenda for activist government that can bring about a coalition of social and economic interest groups in ways different from that of the progressives in the Democratic Party to assure Republican successes in future elections. 

It is not that Mr. Cass is against free market ideas and policies, per se; indeed he thinks they were useful and even necessary back in the 1980s, when social conservatives, foreign policy interventionists, and free market libertarians needed to help win the Cold War being fought with the Soviet Union, and defeat a variety of misguided domestic policies. But that was then, and this is now. 

Rejecting Free Markets and Libertarianism

Times have changed, as they always do. Mr. Cass says that in the post-Cold War world “conservative economic thinking atrophied,” and “libertarian ideas ossified into market fundamentalism” in the controlling hands of an unnamed “clique of market fundamentalists” who have become wrongly identified with “conservatism.” Then came along Donald Trump who “lacked any discernible ideology or capacity for governing.” Trumpism simply has been a cult of personality, which now that he is off the presidential stage of history, leaves the future direction of a conservatism reborn up for grabs. 

So, what are the sins of those who advocate this “market fundamentalism,” Mr. Cass’s opposition to which is not much different from its rejection by the broad coalition of those on the political “left?” It seems that libertarians, which is just another name for “market fundamentalists” in his political lexicon, “are obsessed with liberty to the exclusion of other values.” We are told: 

“Markets reduce people to their material interests, and reduce relationships to transactions. They prioritize efficiency to the exclusion of resilience, sentiment, and tradition. Shorn of constraints, they often reward the most socially corrosive behaviors and can quickly undermine the foundations of a stable community – for instance, pushing families to commit both parents to full-time market labor or to strip-mining talent from across the nation and consolidating it in a narrow set of cosmopolitan hubs.”

Alas, Mr. Cass declares, “Libertarians have no time for such nuance.” Being “unable to distinguish between what markets can and cannot do and unwilling to acknowledge the harm that they can cause,” they, instead, blindly pursue “the unquestioned priorities of personal freedom and consumption.”

Cass’s Conservatism is Just More Collectivist Planning

What markets, free and uncontrolled by political constraints, tend to do, he warns, is undermine traditions and morals, weaken communities, and leave no sense of the common tasks for national betterment. In a list of concerns not much different from those of the “progressives,” Mr. Cass insists that libertarian market fundamentalists give no consideration to the deleterious effects of income inequality, concentration of community-impacting decision-making in large corporate hands, and place seemingly no importance on the cultivating and fostering of the “right values” in society as a whole and the educational system in particular. 

So, what does he propose as his activist political agenda for a new conservatism? Well, it really comes down to pretty much the same conservative paternalism of times in the past. The national interest comes before the individual’s own interest, as reflected in his calling for more of the same Mercantilist directing of economic affairs to assure that America does not “lose out” to a rising China. Industries, clearly, need to be protected, sectors of the economy must be supported, as well as directed as to where businesses are to be located, especially since Mr. Cass wants to “decentralize” where people live and work in a more balanced pattern away from large metropolitan areas.

In other words, this would be his own form of central planning of foreign trade and domestic industry, along with some type of national zoning designed to create the population distributions between town and country that he considers to be better than at present. No doubt, Mr. Cass would loudly object that he is not a “socialist” wanting to plan the economy. But, in fact, this would simply be a form of government direction of economic affairs that in the France of the 1950s was called “indicative planning.” The government does not directly control and command the country’s economic affairs; instead, it uses fiscal and regulatory tools to “nudge” private enterprises into those directions and activities the government social engineers want, while seeming to leave it all up to private sector businessmen within a “tamed” market economy. Nevertheless, a planning mindset and mechanism by any other name still remains political paternalism and social engineering.

Blaming Markets for Government-Caused Problems

How does Mr. Cass propose to deal with economic inequality and the imbalances between workers and employers? First, it might be pointed out that his despair that “market fundamentalism” has forced both parents in a household to earn a living in the labor market has a lot to do with the tax burdens on the average American family that create the necessity for there to be more than one breadwinner. Or perhaps he has not noticed the various amounts of income the government siphons off out of people’s paychecks, particularly, in places like California and New York and many other states, before there is any money left to bring home to cover household expenses. The fiscal follies of the federal and state governments in funding the interventionist-welfare state cannot be placed at the door of the free market. This has more to do with government-knows-best “fundamentalism.”

Furthermore, he seems to have an implied image of the “little woman” (which in our transgender world can be a “him” or a “her” depending upon how they feel that day when they wake up) should be staying at home cooking away at the hearth. Well, as Mr. Cass says himself, times change, and many women, besides any needed family income, would prefer to work outside of the home pursuing a career and having multiple sides to a meaning to their life. Many of them might not appreciate a conservative “nudger” trying to manipulate how they live and for what “values” in mind through household-focused indicative planning. 

Conservative Labor Unionism, Not Free Markets

He clearly feels that the degree to which government directly redistributes income undermines a variety of the traditional virtues that he values. But he is uncomfortable with the tried and true “market fundamentalist” methods of low taxes and deregulated competitive capitalism to foster the physical and human capital investment that over time raises the productivity and wages of those employed to bring about rising incomes across groups and individuals in society as well as reducing government-induced inequalities in income. 

Instead, Mr. Cass wants a “conservative” government to support labor unions. He sees the path to a better America for the average worker through collective bargaining and required labor union participation on the corporate boards of private enterprises. Well, that certainly is more like an older conservative traditionalism; medieval guild memberships and closed shops to assure that the union bosses – or excuse me, “worker representatives” – on corporate boards can strong arm – excuse me once more, “recommend” – higher wages to their co-managers on how those businesses are operated. (See my article, “Free Labor Markets vs. Biden’s Push for Compulsory Unionism”.)

Perhaps, Mr. Cass should be less quick to castigate the free market economist’s insights that he pooh-poohs as “outdated claims” to “eternal and universal truth,” and turn to the fact that minimum wage laws oftentimes leave out permanently unemployed segments of the unskilled and public school poorly educated young and minority members of society. Time and place do not change the fact that no employer will voluntarily hire and pay someone more than they think to be the value of an individual’s work in their enterprise, regardless of what government commands to be the legal minimum wage rate at which employment may be given. (See my articles, “Freedom and the Minimum Wage” and “Price Controls Attack the Freedom of Speech”.) 

He should also be less impatient with how government regulations and interventions prevent or inhibit the ability to open and expand small businesses that, otherwise, enable greater self-employment and hiring of more people in local communities that suffer from higher degrees of low income and lack of job opportunities. Or how such interventions and regulations limit business competition and protect established and larger firms that Mr. Cass feels too frequently dominate markets. (See my article, “Don’t Confuse Free Markets with the Interventionist State”.)

Conservative Rather Than Progressive Schooling Mandates

Mr. Cass’s mindset is no different in the arena of education. He does not see a path to better schooling and the knowledge and skills that students require through either the “conservative” emphasis on competitive school choice or the libertarian proposal for simply privatizing schooling altogether and taking the education business completely out of government hands. No, he shows himself to be an educational central planner here just as much as his progressive “opponents.” 

He simply wants government schools to do the teaching and training with a focus that he considers the right ones for the country as a whole, rather than how the “social justice” warriors see it. High schools would emphasize practical skills and partner with local businesses for on-the-job training before they enter the workplace. As for college and university degrees, they would be focused on preparing graduates for a “real world” where they could cover the costs of the higher education they had earned. One wonders what has happened to the older conservative appreciation for a liberal arts education, and how it fits into this mix. But what a “traditional” education means is, obviously, all in the eyes of the “conservative” central planner holding the reins of political power. After all, as Mr. Cass says, times change. (See my article, “Educational Socialism versus the Free Market”.)

Conservative “Social Corporate Responsibility”

He says that much of his frustration with and rejection of libertarians and free markets has to do with his presumption that their proponents show neither understanding nor sensitivity to the “conservative” values of custom, tradition, ordered society, community, and family.” Again, like those in the “progressive” political camp, Mr. Cass criticizes Milton Friedman’s argument that the purpose of private corporations is to maximize profits and ignore “stakeholders” in the surrounding community and society. Instead, they should show a “social corporate responsibility,” regardless of the financial bottom line.

He totally misses, just like the recent host of “progressive” critics of Friedman’s argument, that his point was not that such societal concerns were irrelevant or unimportant. Rather, expecting corporations to take on this role, independent of and possibly in contraction to the wishes of the firm’s shareholders, threatens not merely the financial health of the enterprise but politicizes business activities in a way that can easily undermine the smooth functioning of the social order and the market economy that is part of it. The funding and the facilitating of solutions to these “social problems” were best left to the individual and voluntary associative choices of income earners and dividend recipients, who then decide the practical and ethical best ways of spending their own money. (See my articles, “Milton Friedman and the New Attack on the Freedom to Choose” and “Stakeholder Fascism Means More Loss of Liberty”.) 

Misreading Edmund Burke and the Role of Civil Society

Mr. Cass draws upon the ideas of the 18th century British conservative philosopher, Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who placed great value on the historical importance and continuity of institutions and traditions that provide security and stability to people within and across generations. But his reading of Burke leads him to think that if such institutions and traditions are important, it is the duty of governments to preserve them, cultivate them, and reform society in cautiously better directions. 

Other Burkean conservatives, while seeing a larger role for government in society than classical liberals and libertarians usually do, have emphasized that these “intermediary institutions” of civil society – family, organized religions, community associations and charities, among others – need to be kept particularly separate from the government and its controls precisely due to the fact that they serve also as the important “buffers” and protectors standing between the lone individual and the potentially unlimited power of the State that can absorb and crush the single person. 

For instance, the conservative sociologist, Robert Nisbet (1913-1996), highlighted these aspects to his Burkean understanding of society and its institutions, and made it a central element in his exposition of the ideas and principles of his book, Conservatism: Dream and Reality (1986). Nisbet insisted that “Laissez-faire and decentralization are sovereign to Burke.” In his earlier work, Twilight of Authority (1975), Nisbet explained the importance of the autonomy of such voluntary associative and market-based institutions, and the pressure they were under from the usurping and centralizing powers of government:

“Of all the consequences of the steady politicization of our social order, of the unending centralization of political power…the greatest in many ways is the weakening and disappearance of traditions in which [non-political] authority and liberty alike are anchored…

“Of all the needs in this age the greatest is, I think, a recovery of the social, with its implication of social membership, that in fact exists in human behavior, and the liberation of the idea of the social from the political…Crucial are the voluntary groups and associations. It is the element of the spontaneous, of untrammeled, unforced volition, that is undoubtedly vital to creative relationships among individuals…

“Voluntary associations have an importance well beyond what they do directly for the individual members. Most of the functions which are today lodged either in the state or in great formal organizations came into existence in the first place in the context of larger voluntary associations. This is true of mutual aid in all its forms – education, socialization, social security, recreation, and the like…It is in the context of such [voluntary] association, in short, that most steps in social progress have taken place.” 

The importance of this is significant enough for me to tax the reader’s patience with referencing a complementary emphasis on the same point by the noted University of Chicago sociologist, Edward Shils (1910-1995) in “The Virtue of Civil Society” (Government and Opposition, January 1991). Vital to a free, prosperous, and humane social order, Shils insisted, was a large swath of society that is independent of and separate from political control and domination. Or as he put it:

“The idea of civil society is the idea of a part of society which has a life of its own, which is distinctly different from the state, and which is largely in autonomy from it…A market economy is the appropriate pattern of economic life of a civil society. There is, however, much more to civil society than the market. The hallmark of a civil society is the autonomy of private associations and institutions, as well as private business firms…

“The civil society…must possess the institutions that protect it from encroachment of the state and keep it a civil society…These are the institutions by which the state is kept within substantive and procedural confinement. The confinement, which might be thought to be negative, is sustained on belief of a positive ideal, the ideal of individual and collective freedom.”

Yet, this type of a conservatism reborn seems to hold no place in Oren Cass’s vision of a new “conservatism.” His is really just “progressivism” and its confidence and belief in the possibility and power of political paternalism to remake and move society in “better” directions, only in the context of what Cass conceives as the “good,” and the “right” and conservatively “desirable.” A softer governmental nudge here, a firmer political push there to get society into the collective pattern and shape wanted; just as the “social justice” warriors wish to do. It is the same political train, with the only difference being the ideological and paternalistic destination to which the government-determined ride takes us all.

Individual Rights and Liberty for a Good Society

Classical liberalism and libertarianism and the principles and practice of a free market system are all compatible with and complementary to much of the idea of conservatism and civil society that both Robert Nisbet and Edward Shils focused upon. But the difference is that for classical liberals and libertarians, there are no institutions of civil society, there are no protections for the autonomy of the individual and his voluntary associations from threatening infringements by the State unless the philosophical foundations of the social order start with the idea and ideal of those unalienable rights of each and every person to their respective life, liberty, and honestly acquired property, without which there can be no meaningful pursuit of happiness.

Traditions, customs, and noncoercive “authorities” to which people give recognition and respect and deference only can sustainably emerge and intergenerationally survive when they arise out of the free actions and chosen forms of personal and societal interactive conduct of the human actors themselves. It is what Adam Smith called “the system of natural liberty” with its evolved institutions of free exchange that generates the workings of the market’s “invisible hand” of mutual gains from trade in all their varied forms inside and outside of the marketplace. (See my article, “Adam Smith on Moral Sentiments, Division of Labor, and the Invisible Hand”.)

If “liberty” is given foremost importance by classical liberals and libertarians, it is not due to an ossified dogmatism, as Oren Cass tries to suggest. It is because liberty is and should be considered a good in itself, something that recognizes and tells an individual that their life is their own to live and enjoy and use as they peacefully and honestly find to be best so as to give that life meaning and happiness to them. 

What greater sense of respect and recognized dignity in the individual human being, what greater due regard for the uniqueness of each and every person alive than to tell them and assure them that they may not be made the coerced tool in the hands of others, whether they be private agents or government officials. It is classical liberalism that raised this as a universal and moral ideal, and it is the institutions and acceptance of free markets that separated earning a living from the control of political power that made it possible to practice the individual freedom that Mr. Cass sneers at and too easily shunts aside. The libertarian’s emphasis on consumer choice is not from a crass worship of materialism, but from an appreciation and understanding that such freedom to choose in a market economy enables the individual to express all the “higher” values that the availability and use of market-provided means make possible in a way that no other economic system has ever allowed. (See my article, “The Rise of Capitalism and the Dignity of Labor”.)  

It is also the only basis and means for humanity to live in peace and cooperative harmony through the competition of the marketplace, which successfully reconciles many, indeed most, of the conflicts and discontinuities in the actions of multitudes of people in a world of limited means that can be used to advance the numerous competing ends that people follow.   

At the same time, it cultivates the social attitudes and activities that increase the opportunities of life and improves not only the material but the cultural and intellectual conditions of all. What we need is for the political paternalists and ideological busybodies of every stripe to just leave all of us alone. We can take care of ourselves, thank you very much, even if as imperfect people in an imperfect world we make missteps along the way. We need neither “progressives” nor “conservatives” of Oren Cass’s ilk to manage the world. What we need is for the likes of all of them to mind their own business. (See my articles, “Mr. President: Please Mind Your Own Business” and “Hazony’s Tradition-Based Society is a Form of Social Engineering” and “Conservative Nationalism is Not About Liberty” and “The Plague of Meddling Political Busybodies” and my book, For a New Liberalism.)

But this is neither a classical liberalism nor a form of conservatism that appeals to Oren Cass when what he really is after is figuring how to outwit the progressives in the game of political plunderhood by devising coalitions in society that will put “his side” in elected office next time around through a “conservative” version of handouts of favors, privileges and subsidies. His “new” conservatism, therefore, is really only the same old political paternalism, just in different rhetorical clothing. 

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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