OPINION: Conservatives Shouldn’t Lose Sight Of Buckley’s Vision For Limited Government

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Norbert Michel The Heritage Foundation
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A serious debate is now occurring within the conservative movement on economic policy: Is it best to be interventionist, or to be more laissez faire? Rather than trying to discredit other conservatives by labeling them as either socialists or utopian libertarians, it would be worthwhile for both sides to look back at the free-market roots of the movement.

In his 1955 column announcing National Review’s mission statement, William F. Buckley Jr. listed several defining conservative doctrines. Among them:

  • It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly. In this great social conflict of the era, we are, without reservations, on the libertarian side.
  • The competitive price system is indispensable to liberty and material progress. It is threatened not only by the growth of Big Brother government, but by the pressure of monopolies (including union monopolies).

Many conservatives feel their colleagues have brushed Buckley’s sentiments aside — that they would now rather yield too much than fight the growth of government. Similarly, the once-indispensable price system seems to have given way to the needs of virtually every special-interest group on the planet.

Countless conservative groups now argue that the price system is important but that their particular issue — whether related to money, banking, housing, energy, the environment, trade, labor, etc. — is different. It is often clear that this approach puts the material progress of these special-interest groups ahead of the liberty and progress of everyone else.

There is no shortage of other stalwart conservatives who identified with the importance of protecting freedom — including the freedom to exchange goods and services — so that people could build strong, vibrant communities.

Here is just a small sample.

  • Ronald Reagan: “Millions of individuals making their own decisions in the marketplace will always allocate resources better than any centralized government planning process.”
  • Milton Friedman: “The economic miracle that has been the United States was not produced by socialized enterprises, by government-union-industry cartels or by centralized economic planning. It was produced by private enterprises in a profit-and-loss system. And losses were at least as important in weeding out failures, as profits in fostering successes. Let government succor failures, and we shall be headed for stagnation and decline.”
  • Barry Goldwater: “I feel certain that Conservatism is through unless Conservatives can demonstrate and communicate the difference between being concerned with [the unemployed, the sick without medical care, human welfare, etc.] and believing that the federal government is the proper agent for their solution.”

All of these conservatives understood that when the state grants economic rights — the right to a 30-year fixed rate mortgage, for example — it undermines the very concept of human rights. When it is the government’s job to provide economic well-being, individuals soon lose the right to free speech and the right to self-govern because those rights interfere with the ability of the government to efficiently deliver the goods.

The end result: the individual takes a back seat to the collective as a matter of law.

These conservatives also understood that granting such economic rights ultimately undercuts the concept of human flourishing. The right to work at some particular wage, for instance, upends the competitive price system and forces individuals to depend on government handouts to stay alive. This sort of dependence is self-defeating — wealth is not created because the government says it must be — and it opens the door for the state to exert further control over people’s lives.

These conservatives were also well aware that markets are not neutral. But they stuck to their principles because they knew that markets are fairer than letting someone in power decide who gets to eat.

There are many different strains of conservative thought, so it is not very surprising that many conservatives focus on policies that run afoul of free-market principles. But it is surprising that so many conservatives are willing to brush aside how large and invasive the federal government has become since Buckley launched National Review.

There is no shortage of ways to roll back our leviathan federal government, but not so many that marginalizing so-called libertarian policies helps the cause. Conservatives would be best served to focus on communicating free-market policies to more Americans than on sniping among themselves.

Norbert Michel (@NorbertjMichel) is director of the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.