Who cares about “conservatism”?

“Tom Hagen” doesn’t. He’s the author of a piece by that name in American Greatness. In form, Hagen’s argument parallels that of Michael Anton (aka Decius), discussed here.

Anton’s subject is the “liberal international order.” He argues that it is a means to ends, not an end in itself, and thus must be rated on its ability to serve core American foreign policy interests — peace, prestige, and prosperity.

Hagen argues that conservatism too is a means to ends, and must be evaluated based on its ability to deliver. But to what end? The one he focuses on is helping “the forgotten man” put bread on the table to feed his family.

Anton finds that liberal international order has largely succeeded in meeting its ends, but needs restructuring in light of changed circumstances. Hagen finds that conservatism has delivered “nothing” — not lately, anyway. Thus, who needs it?

But what is conservatism? Towards the end of his piece, Hagen says it is “best understood as a political coalition formed in the mid-1950s between ‘free-market’ libertarians and traditionalist conservatives who wanted to beat back the Soviets abroad and the New Deal bureaucracy at home.”

Why, though, did conservatives want to beat back the Soviets abroad and the New Deal at home? I think it was because conservatives believe in ordered liberty and economic freedom.

As for putting bread on the table — or serving the common good, as Hagen puts it later on — conservatives believe that this is best accomplished through the operation of free markets and free men. Has that view been rendered obsolete by events? Was its obsolescence ratified by the 2016 election? Hagen seems to think so, but makes no such showings.

How about statism, public works programs, and the erection of major barriers to trade? Has experience shown that these approaches out-deliver conservative economic policies? Hagen makes no such showing.

I agree that conservatives should be open to the possibility that particular non-conservative policies Trump has touted might out-deliver conservative alternatives. Without that openness, conservatives begin to resemble the cliche-ridden slogan-mongers Hagen portrays them as.

But there is something else to consider. Suppose that a series of statist policies could be shown to better deliver bread to the forgotten man. To be specific, suppose it could be shown to produce lower unemployment, or higher wages, or more widespread health insurance coverage.

Conservatives should still insist that any deprivation of freedom be factored into the discussion of the merits of these policies. Certainly, Obamacare’s infringement on freedom was part of the conservative critique of that statist program.

Here we come to the difference between the conservatism Hagen attacks and the liberal international order that Anton questions. The liberal international order is largely instrumental — a means to ends, just as Anton says. That’s certainly true of its organizations like the U.N. and NATO, that Anton views as residing at the core.

By contrast, for conservatives the liberty and economic freedom they seek to promote are ends, not just means to other ends.

Trumpians are right to direct our attention to the other ends. And they are right not to take it on blind faith that conservative ends will always best serve these other ends.

However, Trumpians would err grievously if, as Hagen seems to do, they dismissed conservative ends as cliches and slogans and assumed that conservatism now offers “nothing” when it comes to accomplishing material ends.

Fortunately, I do yet see President Trump taking this approach. He is committed to tax reform, regulatory reform and other conservative policies that expand freedom, and he seems to believe that such policies have much to offer the forgotten man. There are also statist components to the agenda he articulates, but hopefully not so many as will cause conservatives to be hugely aggrieved.

Deep down, Trump may feel that, in Hagen’s words, “conservatism has outlived its usefulness” as a set of ideas. Deep down, he may feel that it was never useful in that way. However, so far he is acting as if he takes conservatism, or at least the policy preference of his conservative vice president, seriously.

Perhaps this is because, however he may feel about conservatism as a set of ideas, he understands that it has not outlived its political usefulness to him.

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