The Return of Economic Nationalism | Opinion

What do conservatives want? For decades, movement conservatives had a ready answer to this question. We want free markets and low taxes. We want limited government. In Grover Norquist's infamous formulation, we want to shrink government so small that we "we can drown it in the bathtub."

If these libertarian fantasies failed to inspire you, you're not alone. Many of us who consider ourselves to be deeply conservative were never moved by the "leave us alone" agenda. We aspired to national greatness—not small government. We longed to lift up our fellow Americans, not withdraw from them. And for our sins, we were ostracized. In the Republican schoolyard, being called a "squish" or a "RINO" made you unpopular, indeed.

Like him or not, President Donald Trump has rendered an invaluable service to the conservative movement. It took this brash outsider to finally shatter the ossified Cold War conservative orthodoxy. Suddenly, we're having the debates we should have had the day the Berlin Wall fell. And the most urgent of these debates is to revisit the notion that conservatives must be free market fundamentalists.

When conservatives support an active governmental role in promoting our national industry and protecting our workers, we are not betraying our conservative heritage—we're honoring it. This doesn't mean that conservatives don't revere the free market—we most certainly do. But we've always seen the free markets as a means towards an end and never mistook it for an end in itself. Conservatives have thus felt free to depart from orthodox laissez-faire dogma when necessary in the service of larger conservative goals, such as the flourishing of the nation and the unity of its people.

Any analysis of the conservative approach to economics must naturally begin with Edmund Burke. While a strong case can be made that the conservative movement preceded him by centuries, Burke had the benefit of being a contemporary of Adam Smith. These two great men met, exchanged ideas and expressed mutual admiration. Burke read Smith's The Wealth of Nations and endorsed it. For his part, Smith is said to have recognized Burke as "the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do."

Despite this background, however, the frequent efforts to claim Burke as some sort of prophet of laissez-faire completely misunderstand the man and misrepresent his thought. Burke's deep appreciation for free markets never hardened into an ideological absolute. Quite to the contrary, Burke was famously suspicious of all abstract ideologies. And he was downright hostile to any effort to reshape society in the name of such ideologies.

Rather than obsess over the means, Burke focused on the end. And for Burke, the end—the great goal of his politics—was clear: the flourishing of his nation, what he once called "the grandeur and glory of England." Burke was a British nationalist who was far more interested in the wealth of his nation than in The Wealth of Nations.

In Burke's day, Britain governed a global empire. Burke thus pursued his nationalist agenda from within this now-obsolete colonial framework. Yet while Burke's specific policy proposals are no longer relevant, his political priorities most certainly are. Throughout his career, Burke advocated measures to promote the national interest that departed from laissez-faire dogma.

Noting that "restraints upon trade are nice things; and ought to be well considered," Burke consistently supported restrictions that prevented Britain's colonies from (1) developing industries that competed with Britain and (2) purchasing manufactured goods from anywhere other than Britain. When it came to non-competing industries, however, Burke encouraged government to "grudge no expense" in providing subsidies and other support to promote colonial enterprises.

Across the Atlantic, Burke's conservative contemporary, Alexander Hamilton, was pursuing his nation's interests with equal zeal. Hamilton had also studied and admired Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. He certainly saw free markets and free trade as an ideal to work toward. But like Burke, Hamilton was animated by another, overriding priority: the independence and prosperity of his nation.

The economic circumstances facing Hamilton's America were quite different from those of Burke's Britain. Hamilton's challenge was not to preserve the existing mercantilist arrangements, but to break free from them. In particular, Hamilton dedicated himself to building the infrastructure—financial and physical—that would facilitate the development of American commerce and industry. He thus supported the creation of a national bank as well as investments in internal improvements, such as roads and canals.

Edmund Burke
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Most importantly, Hamilton believed that the government had to actively support strategic new industries. In his seminal Report on Manufactures, Hamilton made the case for providing "bounties" (subsidies) for infant industries. He also advocated protecting these industries with tariffs, when needed. And he anticipated, and refuted, the standard laissez-faire critique of such policies:

If the system of perfect liberty to industry and commerce were the prevailing system of nations, the arguments which dissuade a country in the predicament of the United States from the zealous pursuit of manufactures would doubtless have great force.... But the system which has been mentioned is far from characterizing the general policy of nations.

Hamilton's economic policies outlived him. A series of prominent American leaders continued to support muscular government interventions to enable the U.S. to better compete with Britain. The most prominent among these economic nationalists was Henry Clay, who dedicated decades to promoting his "American System" of public investments in infrastructure (both physical and financial) combined with protective tariffs. But it ultimately fell to one of Clay's most zealous disciples, Abraham Lincoln, to fully implement this ambitious agenda. While prosecuting the Civil War, Lincoln also put into place a system of investments, subsidies and tariffs that put America on a path to ultimately surpass the British.

By the dawn of the 20th century, America was the world's ascendant industrial power. As such, our national interest now required the very free trade and limited government that had previously impeded our progress. Once the Cold War began, ideological imperatives combined with economic necessity to enshrine laissez-faire at the heart of American conservatism.

It was a golden conservative era. And it ended three decades ago. We're now well into a new century in which we face different adversaries and novel challenges. Like Hamilton, we live in a day when laissez-faire "is not the prevailing system of nations." As other governments aggressively promote and protect their industries, vast swaths of America's industrial heartland have been devastated. Yet too many conservatives continue to invoke abstract ideology to justify impotent inaction.

We can do better. True conservatives understand that national progress is a multi-generational project. To move forward, we must be in constant dialogue with our conservative ancestors. This conversation is urgent and instructive, for these forebears have much to tell us. They remind us to place our nation and our fellow Americans at the heart of our movement. They urge us to confront our complex reality free from the blinders of abstract ideology. Most of all, they plead with us from the great beyond to stand up and start acting like conservatives again.

It's about time we listen.

David Brog is president of the Edmund Burke Foundation.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.