A Compass for Navigating the Right’s New Debates

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In recent years, the American Right has engaged in some very important internal debates. These have involved arguments over the various ways that our principles might apply to contemporary problems, and also disputes over how to prioritize those principles and how to understand those problems.

At times, these debates have suffered from Twitteritus—a cruel disease of diminishment, which leaves serious people ridiculous and renders complex ideas crude. No one is immune. And because such a great portion of these intra-conservative debates have taken place on Twitter, it has been easy to walk away with the impression that the debates themselves are unserious, the underlying issues are trifling, and the people involved may all be right to call one another names. This isn’t true, but seeing that requires people to step up and make their arguments more fully, take the people with whom they’re arguing more seriously, and make it clear that what’s at stake isn’t about scoring points but about strengthening our country and improving the lives of its people.

To be fair, there have been examples of that on all sides of these arguments, even if there haven’t been enough. But today brings an important and impressive new one that can help all of us think about how to elevate the debates we’re engaged in. It takes the form of a newly launched project called American Compass, headed by Oren Cass. And it has launched with a series of essays on the question of the proper role of government in setting economic priorities and acting on them.

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The series includes introductory notes from senators Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton and three essays. Wells King, research director for the new project, writes about the history of the “American System” debates and the deep roots of the case for strategic thinking about economics in our country. He argues for recovering the legitimacy of the argument the Right is having, so that we can debate the substantive question of the role of government rather than argue about whether to have a debate at all. Julius Krein, editor of the valuable journal American Affairs, writes about planning and the knowledge problem, properly understood. I take one core point of his case to be a form of Dwight Eisenhower’s observation that “plans are useless but planning is indispensable”—though he is probably friendlier to plans than that in the end. And Cass himself writes about the need for a broader set of goals for economic policy.

I find these pieces very valuable not because I agree with them—I certainly agree with some of what they say, but also disagree with quite a bit. I think they’re useful because they elevate the substance and the form of the right’s internal arguments and make it easier to understand what we are disagreeing about. They can’t be answered with snide ad hominem dismissals, and so they stand a chance of inviting responses that further refine and elevate our thinking about the future.

In a sense, they also show that the distance between the parties to the Right’s internal arguments is smaller than those parties tend to suggest. Each side accuses the other of advancing an abstract argument that isn’t adequate to the practical realities of political life. But regarding those practical realities and concrete policy debates they aren’t actually all that far apart.

But they also leave me thinking that (as I’ve suggested around here before) the framing of these debates as arguments about the proper way to approach economics isn’t quite right. The question is not whether the market economy offers the best path to economic efficiency or a higher material standard of living but whether economic efficiency and a higher material standard of living should always be our priority. That means we aren’t really arguing about the merits of market capitalism as economic theory and practice but about the nature of society and the purpose of politics. Cass gets at this in his thoughtful essay, writing at one point:

Living standards are important, and economic policy should strive to improve them. But only with blinders snapped firmly in place do they appear the only, or primary, concern for policymakers. In a recent survey by the American Enterprise Institute, four-in-five Americans deemed having “freedom of choice in how to live one’s life” and “a good family life” as essential to “the American Dream.” Fewer than half said the same of “a successful career” or “a better quality of life than your parents”; fewer than one-in-five saw “become wealthy” as essential. Pew Research reports that Americans asked to choose between “financial stability” and “moving up the income ladder” prefer the former by more than ten to one.

I think that poll result is wonderfully ironic: Prioritizing freedom of choice and a good family life as if the two aren’t starkly in tension with each other is just so gloriously American. But more important, as Cass notes, is the underlying point these results highlight: Man does not live by bread alone. This suggests not so much that capitalism isn’t the right way to think about economics—I think it certainly is. But it suggests that economics isn’t the foremost way to think about the life of a society or its people. Sometimes it seems like that’s the point these essays are advancing, but sometimes it doesn’t.

Reading these engaging pieces, I found myself reflecting on a foundational statement of the conservative worldview that seems constantly to warn conservatives against losing our way. It’s awfully familiar, and yet it says more than we think it says. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke pauses at one point to warn against the simple-mindedness of a particular strand of liberal radicalism, which frames its view of society in terms of an analogy to business contracts. He writes:

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

The point of this passage, it seems to me, is that a society is more than an economy. It does not propose a criticism of commercial contracts or of an understanding of economics that puts markets at its core. That was very much Burke’s understanding of economics. But a nation is held together by much more than economics, and liberal politics at its best—with its feet on the ground and its sights on the transcendent—is well served by a market economy but is not ultimately defined by it. It prioritizes the standard of living, but not to the exclusion of other crucial goods. The good things it cherishes are in tension with one another, and its politics often consists of finding ways to live with these tensions—ways of balancing competing goals in response to complicated circumstances.

Finding that elusive balance in this perplexing time is what the internal debates of the Right should be aimed at. If we treated those debates with the seriousness they deserve, we would see that they are in fact aimed at just that. And even where I disagree with the case that American Compass looks set to advance, it seems to me that it will help us see that challenge more clearly, and so will help us understand it and meet it.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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