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Capitalism is a Dead End Narrative for Conservatives (Washington Examiner) September 12, 2019

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Here’s a Jeopardy! answer for you to consider: The federal debt, free trade, a consistent national security policy, and young voters. The question: What are things conservatism has lost?

But the biggest conservative calamity of all, and one that creates real jeopardy at the polls, is the loss of its narrative. Conservatives, whose message was once individual liberty and limited government, are instead now branded by the narrower and less popular narrative of capitalism and free markets. It turns out that path is a dead end, especially among younger voters.

As Patrick Dineen pointed out in his book Why Liberalism Failed, the two great operating systems of our time are now the state (big government) and the market (capitalism). To many, including most young people, these are both opaque systems operated by distant forces beyond their understanding and influence. Both are undesirable but, of the two, government at least allows some kind of voice or representation of the people, so to young people it seems fairer than the harsh markets that produce winners and losers.

Indeed, the perceived harshness of capitalism and the market is the underlying cause of the recent rise of the once-despised term “socialism” in the American vocabulary. As presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg explained, “I think the reason we’re having this argument over socialism and capitalism is that capitalism has let a lot of people down.” Young people, who lived through the recession of 2008 and its aftermath, carry huge student debt, experience wage stagnation and lower-paying jobs, and are resigned to less financial success and security than their parents.

Unfortunately, for Republicans and conservatives, they are associated with free markets and capitalism, whereas liberals and Democrats are for big government. A 2017 Pew survey found that 57% of Americans 18-29 years old want a “bigger government with more services,” compared with only 38-40% of those ages 50 and up. Young people say they are interested in “socialism” but, if you probe a little more deeply, what they really want is free stuff: free college education, reduction of student debt, help with the high cost of housing, and the like, and this is precisely the direction most of the Democratic presidential candidates are heading.

Conservatives and Republicans have only begun to realize that their singular pursuit of capitalism and free markets is heading over the cliff and appear to be at a loss on what to do about it. Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson shocked his Fox News audience on Jan. 2 with a tiradeagainst capitalism that could well have been articulated by Sen. Bernie Sanders. David Brooks, the New York Timesconservative columnist, worries that economic competitors have been too focused on their own short-term gains and have lost their moral compass. Now there is a debate on reforming corporate practice to take account of more goals than just shareholder value. It will doubtless take a while to see if conservatives are able to reform capitalism to the satisfaction of young people, or whether their efforts will be seen as just putting lipstick on a pig.

The larger point, however, is that there is a larger point to conservatism than just capitalism and free markets, and it is here that conservatives need to take their stand. Conservatives have traditionally believed that freedom is indivisible and extends to political, religious, social, personal freedoms, right along with economic freedom. They are the champions of the opening line of the Declaration of Independence claiming that America is about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They are the defenders of the Constitution that set up systems by which individual liberty is to be guaranteed, especially from threats by big government.

Young people, who still love their individualism, resent being told they must wear helmets and pads through life, don’t like to be told they can’t buy a 16-ounce soda or an e-cigarette, or that their private health insurance is now illegal under Obamacare. They can still be reached by a message of individual liberty and limited government. That is where conservatives must begin their narrative, not with today’s bogeymen of capitalism and free markets.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner‘s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.


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