The Poverty of National Conservativism

The Poverty of National Conservativism

Nailing down the content of national conservatism has not been easy.

Statements of principles by political groups are a dime-a-dozen these days. Most don’t garner much attention for more than a few days before fading into the background.

Some statements, however, attract more attention than others. That’s certainly true of “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles,” released June 15 this year. Since its emergence in 2019 under the Edmund Burke Foundation’s auspices, the National Conservative movement has consciously sought to change the focus and emphasis of American conservatism as it existed roughly from the mid-1950s until the Bush administration.

Some of national conservatism’s broad outlines have been plain from its beginning and are reflected in this statement. The most obvious is the reaffirmation of national sovereignty over and against global and supranational governance schemes and institutions. That goes together with skepticism of foreign policy interventions associated with the promotion of liberal order. The obvious target here is neo-conservatism.

On the domestic level, the National Conservative statement devotes considerable space to emphasizing the need to reaffirm institutions like the traditional family and religion. It’s not hard to find conservatives who believe that these were neglected by those elements of the American Right that prioritized liberty. Here, national conservatives have some neoconservatives but above all libertarians, particularly the left-leaning variety, in mind.

Beyond these broad emphases, however, nailing down the content of national conservatism has not been easy. It’s one thing to state that you want to reaffirm national sovereignty. What, however, does that mean in practice beyond, say, enforcing un-enforced border laws or putting supranational institutions like the European Union and outfits like the World Economic Forum firmly in their place?

Similarly, simply saying that you desire to bolster traditional families or protect religious communities from aggressive progressives doesn’t tell us much about how you intend to do it. Holding congressional hearings into how America ended up with schools and libraries hosting weekly drag-queen hours won’t strike many people as necessarily leading to very much by way of concrete action.

On one level, the National Conservative statement tries to address such lacunae. Some of this is relatively straightforward. It rejects, for example, any transfer of sovereignty to international organizations. That’s commendable, though it doesn’t represent any departure from post-1950s American conservatism which has long expressed skepticism of institutions with pretensions to transnational sovereignty.

Indeed, there are several areas in which the National Conservative statement essentially echoes longstanding emphases of what’s called “right-liberalism.” These include curtailing the administrative state, strengthening the rule of law and the constitutionalist vision laid out in the Founding era, and restoring the judiciary to its proper constitutional role. It’s good to see such things, long underscored by groups like the Federalist Society, affirmed.

The statement also praises federalism. Again, that is welcome, though, oddly enough, it is prescribed as a type of concession to experimentation and freedom at the level of states rather than characterized as one of America’s fundamental contributions to Western constitutional thought.

There is, however, one area in which the National Conservative statement departs significantly from the broad post-1950s fusionist consensus. That concerns economics.

Paragraph 6 of the statement affirms free enterprise and private property and rejects socialism. But taken as a whole, the paragraph amounts to advocacy of what’s best described as a version of state capitalism.

“Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation,” paragraph 6 states. Globalized markets, it adds, have allowed hostile foreign powers (presumably China) to “despoil America” of “manufacturing capacity, weakening them economically.” Consequently, America needs policies that will “nurture industries crucial for national defense, and restore and upgrade manufacturing capabilities critical to the public welfare.”

Where does one start? Perhaps the best place to begin is to note that America is doing just fine in manufacturing. The United States remains among the world’s leading manufacturing nations. It also leads the world in high-tech. Indeed, among OECD nations, America continues to be the top destination for manufacturing foreign direct investment. Plenty of manufacturing factories are being built by foreign companies in America—mostly in right-to-work states that have avoided the parasitic unions that, together with lazy complacent management, successfully rendered much of the American car industry uncompetitive in regions like the Great Lakes.

As for the decline in American manufacturing jobs, study after study of the question underscores that it was overwhelmingly driven by technology replacing physically demanding, often dangerous jobs with machines. That includes the period of the “China shock.” Between 10-20 percent of the 5.8 million manufacturing jobs lost in this period involved outsourcing. This means that 80-90 percent disappeared as a consequence of technological change and other efficiency-increasing measures.

The statement also insists that America needs policies that “nurture industries crucial for national defense.” In fact, America already has many laws and domestic programs that support its defense industrial base, including in the area of research and development.

More generally, the national conservatives want to “restore and upgrade manufacturing capabilities critical to the public welfare.” That sounds like an indirect endorsement of industrial policy.

Leaving aside all the well-documented problems with industrial policy—the opportunity costs, how it is invariably captured by rent-seekers, the notorious difficulty in establishing causality between particular economic outcomes and specific industrial policies, to name just a few—there is no recognition of industrial policy’s documented failures in country after country after country, not to mention the ways in which it inflicts real political damage upon nations that deploy it.

That makes it somewhat ironic that the National Conservative statement’s economic reflections end with a condemnation of crony capitalism. For if there is anything that we know about industrial policy, it is that it breeds the cronyism that infests places like Washington, DC, and its surrounding environs.

More could be said about the National Conservative statement. But all in all, it adds up to, first, reiteration of some longstanding conservative themes; second, a desire to marginalize supranational institutions as well as the likes of the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab; third, an effort to push specific sets of ideas (neo-conservatism, libertarianism, etc.) to the peripheries; four, some notable contradictions (who will implement the interventionist policies designed to serve the general welfare if not the administrative agencies that the national conservatives say they want to curtail?); and fifth, a greater willingness to deploy state power to address cultural, economic, and political challenges at the domestic level.

Quite where this will end up is anyone’s guess. American conservatism has never been a static movement, and the national conservatives plainly want it to go in particular directions rather than others. But it’s still unclear to me whether national conservatism is a movement of disparate ideological positions, an effort to build a new political coalition, or simply a vehicle for different groups who are, in varying ways, dissatisfied with fusionism. In that regard, I’d suggest, the National Conservative Statement of Principles provides few answers.

Samuel Gregg is Distinguished Fellow in Political Economy and Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

Image: Reuters.