Will Conservatives Abandon the Free Market?


Will Conservatives Abandon the Free Market?

Conservatives would either “combat” or “convert” business or base their politics “squarely on it.” But, he warned, conservatism “founded on money,” is “fickle, selfish, and irresponsible.”

Critics of the conservative vogue immediately recognized its proponents’ overemphasis on British conservative traditions and the decisive role of business interests in the Republican Party. Schlesinger observed the emergence of intellectual conservatism closely. The “acid test” will be its relationship with the business community and the materialist and secular Republican Party, he remarked. The conservatives would either “combat” or “convert” business or base their politics “squarely on it.” But, he warned, conservatism “founded on money,” is “fickle, selfish, and irresponsible.” Schlesinger also recognized that Kirk was the most intense traditionalist among the conservatives, but a “roaring Manchester liberal” in his opposition to Social Security, school lunches and the United Autoworkers Union. In response to these charges, one conservative, who later became closely associated with Goldwater-Reagan style conservatism, responded that “the leaders of the new conservatism are not now, nor will they be, identified with the American business community.” As he understood it, the foundation of conservatism was adherence to the transcendent principles of revealed religion and natural law.

In retrospect, despite conservatives’ insistence on the importance of religious adherence and the centrality of the evangelical voting bloc to the conservative coalition, Schlesinger’s assessment was prescient. One of the strongest traditions in the United States was and remains a defense of the “free enterprise system.” Business leaders and their intellectual allies promoted an invented tradition of American free enterprise under constant progressive assault. Kimberly Phillips-Fein, Bethany Moreton and Benjamin Waterhouse have charted how organized and deep-pocketed business-leaders committed to free markets have shaped the public discourse around economics in important ways.

KIRK BECAME the figurehead of postwar conservatism in the 1950s. Among the New Conservatives, he was the closest to orthodox Republicanism in his politics and the most opposed to the New Deal. As modern American conservatism came to be equated in the public eye with Kirk’s romantic veneration of Edmund Burke and his Midwestern Republicanism, many centrist New Conservatives—including Hallowell, Viereck and Rossiter—backed away from the concept. Kirk’s right-wing economics, his perceived toleration for Joseph McCarthy and his association with William F. Buckley, Jr. alarmed Viereck.

Kirk and his allies needed to define their relationship with the business community. In 1953, Kirk obtained a grant from the Kansas City-based Volker Fund, a pro-free enterprise foundation, to write on academic freedom and the threat of liberalism on campus. He was encouraged that some businessmen “realize that conservatism is something different from Benthamite and Manchesterian abstractions.” Yet, two years later, Kirk had become convinced the directors of the Volker Fund were financing a campaign against him.

The classic history of the conservative intellectual movement holds that traditionalists like Kirk found a sort of ecumenism of the trenches with libertarians and anti-communists as they opposed progressives domestically and communism abroad. This process and its semi-theoretical formulation as “fusionism”—essentially championing virtue under complete political and economic freedom—was successful tactically and rhetorically. But it was not immediately obvious to the intellectual founders of the “conservative movement.” Fusionism also masked the bitterness involved in forging the movement and the incoherence of the formulation. Many, although not all, traditionalist conservatives came to embrace the fusionist framework. Their successors in the conservative movement have blithely maintained that a conservative ethos and dedication to free market economics coincide naturally. In the meantime, conservative intellectuals, politicians and pundits have lived on the rhetorical capital of the traditionalist critique of liberalism while promoting economically disruptive policies.

The mid-1950s right-wing written media landscape was scanty, though Nicole Hemmer has ably depicted the fledgling efforts of conservatives to create a counter-establishment media in her book Messengers on the Right. There was Human Events, a Washington-based newsletter, and two monthly magazines, The American Mercury, a controversialist journal that came under the ownership of an open anti-Semite, and The Freeman, a libertarian magazine edited by Frank Chodorov. Chodorov busily promoted “individualism” as a political identity in the early 1950s. In his career-making attack on Yale University, Buckley referred to himself as an individualist. In 1953, Chodorov founded the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI), and appointed Buckley its first president. Despite his esteem for Chodorov and Buckley, Kirk perceived “a great gulf” between himself and individualists. “I wish you people hadn’t clutched that dreary ideology to your bosom,” he wrote to Buckley’s successor at ISI. “Politically, it ends in anarchy; spiritually, it is a hideous solitude.” In private he denounced the “anarchists of the Freeman” as “Freemaniacs.”

Kirk still believed in market economics. He favored the work of Wilhelm Röpke, an influential German economist whose theorizing of a “constructive” market economics—or “economic humanism”—informed the postwar German miracle that was shepherded by the brilliantly talented finance minister Ludwig Erhard. Röpke took communities, rather than individuals, as the basic economic unit. He proposed policies to foster communities and promote the dignity of work through state support of agriculture, artisans and industry. Kirk admired Röpke and the feeling was mutual. He, too, hoped for a blending of humane market economics and religiously oriented cultural conservatism.

The relationship between Kirk and Röpke suggests a road not taken in American conservatism, an avenue defeated by proponents of orthodox laissez-faire. Kirk came to believe it was his promotion of Röpke’s work in the United States that led the Volker Fund to blackball him. Kirk thought Röpke’s realism, as opposed to “American optimism,” made it essential his work be publicized in the United States. The Fund’s director, Herb Cornuelle, considered Röpke a dangerous radical. This quarrel between critics of the New Deal went public in an article in The Freeman attacking Kirk as “collectivism rebaptized” in the habiliments of the right.

The anti-Kirk essay was written by Frank Meyer, a former communist who became the chief architect of the fusionist synthesis. Legend has it that Meyer suggested a critical essay on Kirk to a tipsy member of the Volker Fund who immediately wrote him a grant. When aggrieved conservatives complained to Chodorov, the editor of The Freeman, he claimed it was his idea and that the real target was Rossiter. In the essay, published in 1955, Meyer argued that Kirk, Rossiter and Viereck were philosophically indistinguishable from the Democratic leader Adlai Stevenson. Conservatism lacked principles, Meyer said. Kirk constantly referred to “authority,” “order,” “community,” “duty” and “obedience.” But rarely “freedom.” Meyer argued the American right must be based on the principle that “all value resides in the individual” and its corollary that economics “must remain free of political control.” Buckley agreed. He told an associate he was “very glad” someone had “unambiguously stated what needs to be stated”: that “the conservative position is rooted in certain inflexible principles,” not “prescription.”

Kirk was furious. He complained that “two radical Jewish atheists,” one an anarchist and the other a former Marxist, presented themselves as “infallible authorities on One Hundred Percent Americanism.” He believed his lack of deference to “American industrialists” had provoked the criticism, an accusation that underestimated the extent to which Chodorov and Meyer valued doctrinal clarity. Kirk feared the “insane conjunction” of Viereck on his left and Chodorov on his right would “sink” conservatism forever. Several of his chums—including Frederick Wilhelmsen, Richard Weaver, T.S. Eliot and Röpke—wrote to him, pleased that pro-market libertarians had established significant intellectual distance from conservatism.

SHORTLY AFTER the Freeman controversy, however, a cohort of intellectual impresarios led by Buckley began a united front approach to the American right centered around National Review (NR). They took “conservatism” as a unifying concept. According to the “convictions” listed in NR’s investor prospectus, the magazine was “without reservations, on the libertarian side” against “centralized government.” In the struggle between “Social Engineers” and “Truth,” they were “without reservations, on the conservative side.” The magazine would oppose liberalism, communism and labor unions in defense of “the competitive price system” that is “indispensable to liberty and material progress.” Buckley broached Kirk about writing a regular column on education. Kirk assented. This new association provoked an amused response from Kirk’s publisher: “until fairly recently [Buckley] called himself a ‘libertarian,’” and “Meyer was equating conservatism with collectivism.” Now all three have “joined forces.”

Despite Kirk’s willingness to write regularly for National Review, his relationship with Buckley and the libertarians associated with the magazine was tense. He refused to be listed on the masthead of a magazine that would publish work by “the Supreme Soviet of Libertarianism,” Meyer and Chodorov. Kirk took Meyer’s criticisms extremely personally, believing him part of a campaign against him. Buckley had to repeatedly insist such a conspiracy was imaginary.

The editorial line at NR was committed to classical free market economics. Yet even within the circle around the magazine, key contributors and conservative icons expressed ambivalence about capitalism. In addition to Kirk, senior editor James Burnham, who shaped the magazine’s tone and direction, called himself the magazine’s left-wing, telling an interviewer that on social and economic issues he was a “moderate.” He favored “the market in economics,” but did not “regard this presumption as an absolute.” Contributor Ernest van den Haag criticized an article about J. M. Keynes and called the economist “a conservative, as I would understand the word.” Similarly, other figures of the conservative movement’s pantheon—Richard Weaver, L. Brent Bozell and Willmoore Kendall—were either not committed to free market economics or broke with it. The patron saint of modern conservatism, Whittaker Chambers, believed in the incompatibility of capitalism and conservatism. Chambers abjured the designation “conservative.” He called himself a “man of the Right” because he supported “capitalism in its American version.” But, he added, “capitalism is not, and by its essential nature cannot conceivably be, conservative.” There was in the history of American industrial capitalism, “not one single touch of conservatism.”