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Why economic conservatives should be more modest

Contemporary conservatism is often depicted as a “three-legged stool”: economic conservatism; foreign policy conservatism, manifested by an activist approach to the world and a strong national defense; and social conservatism. But these three legs aren’t equal. In Republican and conservative intellectual circles, economic conservatism dominates.

One can understand why. Social conservatism is often in conflict with libertarianism, a respectable conservative strand. Moreover, key socially conservatism positions have lost popularity to the point that some are no longer political winners

Foreign policy conservatism also can conflict with older, less aggressive forms of conservatism. And the foreign policy activism of George W. Bush’s administration eventually cost conservatism politically.

Modern economic conservatism, to the extent it focuses on low taxation, isn’t completely in tune with the “fiscal conservatism” that prevailed when I was growing up. But the focus on taxation is tied to the larger goal of preserving a limited government, and hence preserving economic freedom. There is nothing more fundamentally conservative than that.

Accordingly, economic conservatives have a basis for claiming primacy within the conservative movement. But they overreach when they pretend that economic conservatism is comparatively immune to the political vulnerability that plagues social and foreign policy conservatism.

For example, President Obama’s insistence on raising tax rates on the “wealthy” enjoys broad public support, and no grounded conservative should be surprised by this. I’m not big on electoral mandates, especially in elections decided by 3 percentage points. But Obama’s reelection represents a mandate for anything, it is a mandate for raising those tax rates.

His reelection can also be viewed as a retroactive mandate for the bailout of General Motors. It wasn’t by accident that the Obama campaign — now widely acknowledged as an enormously shrewd operation by virtue of having reelected a president in bad economic times — placed that bailout alongside the killing of bin Laden as the administration’s signature accomplishment. By publishing that op-ed opposing the auto bailout, Mitt Romney dug himself a hole in Ohio from which he never escaped.

Spending cuts, including entitlement reform, enjoy popularity in the abstract. However, when it comes to specific proposals, the picture often looks different.

The unpleasant reality is that this election was primarily about the economy, according to both the conventional wisdom and the exit polls. Mitt Romney took mostly conservative positions on the economy; President Obama took mostly liberal ones (although not the unabashedly left-wing positions he actually believes in). Obama won.

In fact, the only Republican to win a presidential election since 1988 embraced “compassionate conservatism,” not straightforward economic conservatism. And his reelection occurred in a year when the national defense was a far bigger concern than normal.

None of this means that conservatives should chop off the economically conservative leg of their stool. Nor does it necessarily mean even that they should modify it. It does mean, I think, that we economic conservatives should be less inclined to triumphalism (see, e.g., 2010), and less inclined to shift political blame to social and/or foreign policy conservatives.

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