Saturday, May 25, 2024
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Free Markets: Necessary But Not Sufficient



For most of our lifetimes, classically liberal economics so dominated the Right that nobody wondered if conservatives were abandoning free markets. In recent years, though, a new generation of conservative thinkers—more traditionalist, populist, or nationalist than libertarian—has challenged the utility and even the morality of laissez faire economic policy.

We welcome their questions and critiques, as they have compelled American conservatives to have a long overdue conversation about the market, the family, and the state. But the blunt truth is the movement cannot abandon free markets. The moral and practical case for free enterprise is as necessary today as it was when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher used it to rescue their nations’ economies and win the Cold War.

Our aim—today as much as it was in 1980—is not economic efficiency for its own sake, but as a powerful means to further human flourishing, what Aristotle called eudaimonia and the Founders called “the pursuit of happiness.” Conservatism seeks the good, the beautiful, and the true—not just the efficient.

But it’s not 1980 anymore. While our gross domestic product has never been higher, our country is headed for disaster.

When Reagan was first elected, nearly 70% of the country belonged to a church. As of 2020, that figure was 47% with a downward trend line. America was diverse, but also much more united: in its faith, patriotism, and, well, grasp of reality. Less than 40% of Americans in a recent poll said patriotism was important to them, down from 70% in 1998. Nearly everyone then would have agreed there are only two sexes—if anyone had thought to ask the question.

No serious person can look at our nation today and conclude we have a healthy society—not when it is awash in opioids, pornography, failing schools, cultural rot, racism, and intolerance under the guise of DEI, collapsing marriage and birth rates, depression and anxiety, fatherlessness, child sexualization and mutilation, the crisis of boys, predatory technology, woke anti-Americanism, open borders, and elite hatred of Biblical values and democratic sovereignty.  

Make no mistake, our very constitutional republic is at stake today when basic concepts like morality, equal protection under law, and freedom of expression and religion are challenged by the relentless agenda of the woke Left that both opposes and co-opts free markets.

Free markets unleash economic growth and opportunity and must be part of our message of prosperity. Markets coordinate what no single planner or committee could: cooperation, specialization, and efficiency. Above and beyond those benefits, well-functioning markets direct individuals’ interests toward others’ needs without coercion. Hopefully people can pursue work they love, but at the very least, the market will let them know if what they are doing is valued by someone else or not. Markets can facilitate respect, personal responsibility, and neighborliness, particularly when institutions of civil society are flourishing.

As we show year after year in the Index of Economic Freedom, prosperity, education, and the environment all thrive in countries that support free markets, rule of law, private property, and limited government. Today our country is No. 25 in the world on the index. Our markets are not free, and the downward trajectory is accelerating.

But markets and freedom don’t exist in a vacuum, and the measure of societal greatness involves more than merely economic factors. China, after all, has a pretty big economy too.

Our political, cultural, and corporate institutions have all turned against working Americans, their God-given rights, and their values. Crony capitalism is rampant. Big Tech monopolies threaten economic freedom, freedom of expression, and even freedom of thought. Many large corporations have forged an unholy alliance with the Left and the administrative state. Big Business fights for special favors in tax and regulatory policy to gain advantage over competitors, and often find it cheaper to invest in lobbying operations over bettering their products and services.

Some Washington Republicans still answer to the Chamber of Commerce and think that what’s good for big business is good for America. The chamber, for its part, no longer has major PR campaigns for free enterprise, but instead pushes climate alarmism, corporate “social responsibility,” and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Big businesses, particularly their legal and HR departments, push these left-wing concepts on employees and customers as enthusiastically as the median member of the Columbia University sociology department.

Meanwhile, conservatives, like The Heritage Foundation and its supporters, know free enterprise is good and its distortion through woke capitalism is a cancer. (The Heritage Foundation founded The Daily Signal in 2014.)

Markets promote human flourishing by allowing families to have the means and the ability to choose not just goods, but in many respects, the good, like a safe home and solid moral education. But this presumes markets operate in the context of a healthy society, and are governed by laws that are fair, limited, and reasonable, while also acknowledging that some societal ills simply cannot be solved by the market alone, no matter how free.

We should recognize—like the rising conservatives do—that our most important task today is rebuilding the healthy society Americans need. The free market is a vital part of the answer but must always be in service to the American family and American values, and not the other way around. 

That is what our movement ought to stand for: a strong, independent nation, full of prospering, working families, that values the good, the true, and the beautiful, with rightly-ordered free enterprise as an indispensable support.