A Note of Introduction

| May 04, 2020 | Announcement

Welcome to American Compass. Our mission is to restore an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity.

Many of the most insightful and creative policymakers, researchers, and pundits on the American right-of-center, and some on the left-of-center as well, are dedicating tremendous intellectual energy toward moving the nation’s policy in this direction. Look within almost any Republican Senate office, federal agency, or mainstream conservative institution—the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, National Review or the Wall Street Journal—and you will find people who are tired of the stale pieties that have come to characterize “conservatism” and eager to reassert genuine conservative principles.

Still, the efforts have been diffuse. Step back, and most of the institutions themselves appear steadfast in their outmoded orthodoxy. Perhaps this is how it should be, or at least has to be. An organization built around support for a specific set of ideas—from the donors who fund it to the leaders who guide it, the rank-and-file who generate its output, and the media and politicians who listen attentively—has no way to reconstitute itself around a different set. The dynamic parallels that of creative destruction in the private sector, which is rarely managed well within a firm and instead requires the incumbent to be swept aside by some new entrant uncommitted to the old technology. The cause of all those working toward reform from within thus requires support from new institutions that can sharpen and amplify the push for change.

Our goal is to play that role, operating as a flagship—one entity in a broad coalition advancing toward a common objective. We are a membership organization, creating and nurturing connections between people, facilitating communication among them, and shaping a common identity understandable to the outside world. We are a forum, allowing recognized leaders to put forward their own ideas and deliberate in a variety of formats including long-form essays and on our blog, The Commons. And we are a participant in the battles of the day, starting and engaging in the debates that we believe most important, unconstrained by affiliation with institutions that may prefer not to have them.

To be clear, unlike in a private-sector competition for market share and profit, our intention here is not to sweep away the incumbents and build our own, larger building in Washington. We respect many of the right-of-center’s institutions and believe they are vital to conservatism’s future. Our concern is that their ideas have ossified, that they have shown they will not undertake a rethinking of their own accord, and that the alternative to reform is not the status quo but a more calamitous descent toward their irrelevance. We hope that we can do our part to set a better course.

Launching in the Time of Coronavirus

Of course, this is a strange moment to be launching a new public-policy organization dedicated to the big questions of political economy and the long-term trajectory of politics and policymaking. America is facing an unprecedented public-health and economic crisis that is properly the focus of all attention. Some days it feels silly to be working on anything else. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, we try to assist the policymakers devising responses.

The larger questions have not gone away, though, and in many respects the crisis has only accentuated them. Not because it “proves” much of anything—just as the old adage says that “hard cases make bad law,” emergencies offer few useful standards for governing in normal times. Someone generally opposed to large public programs or market interventions can very reasonably support them in once-in-a-lifetime circumstances. But the nation is awakening to a set of problems that existed long before coronavirus and will persist long after. For example:

  • The market is not simply a set of discrete transactions between consenting adults, able to shapeshift constantly in pursuit of ever-more-efficient outcomes. An economy cannot be shutdown for a couple of months and then revived like Frankenstein’s monster. Employment relationships lost do not spontaneously reconstitute. A disruption to in-person service industries can mean catastrophe for energy markets a few weeks later. The market includes a set of institutional arrangements within which all transactions take place, and without which even the most brilliant businessman will find himself bankrupt.

  • One such arrangement is the supply chain, which evolves and becomes entrenched over a long period of time as expertise and relationships and physical capital settle into place. America has disregarded supply chains for decades and, as a result, they are configured in ways that take no account of the nation’s interests.
  • While the market’s pursuit of the most efficient arrangement may allow production of the greatest output with the least input, maximizing point-in-time efficiency requires the elimination of flexibility and buffers and the loss of resilience. This works well when things are working well, but it can spell disaster for the family, firm, or nation that leaves itself unprepared for inevitable disruption.
  • Neither our culture nor our economy assigns adequate value to the workers who provide the foundation for our nation’s prosperity. Whatever the basis on which the market determines compensation, it appears poorly correlated with effort, risk, integrity, or social value. The market works constantly to erode a nation’s solidarity, yet when the market fails the nation must have that solidarity to fall back on.

The common thread in these discoveries is the exposure of free-market fundamentalism, so often presented as the sophisticated way to understand economics, as pathetically simplistic. Whenever the nation emerges from this crisis, it will rightfully demand better thinking, toward which we need to be making progress already. As Yuval Levin observed a decade ago, in launching National Affairs at the Great Recession’s depth, “Calamity is ever the season of reflection, and a terrible time is often just the right time for new ventures.”

The 2020 election also looms, and six months from today it will be over. Whether President Trump has won or lost, attention will turn immediately to the question of who and what comes next. For many existing right-of-center institutions, the hoped-for answer is a return to pre-Trump business as usual. We need a better answer, and institutions that can advance one. There is no time like the present for getting underway.

Getting Your Bearings

This website will be the hub for American Compass’s activity. You are reading this post on The Commons, a new blog that will feature more than twenty contributing writers with an extraordinary breadth and depth of expertise. What they share is a commitment to many of the ideas articulated in the Compass mission; that they will disagree on so much else should prompt lively discussion. Framing and then exploring those conflicts should help to define the coalition’s contours and build consensus.

We will regularly place a specific topic In Focus, with an essay series, symposium, or debate that features leading writers delving into the issues. We launch this month with a series called Rebooting the American System, presenting the comprehensive, conservative case for a return to robust national economic policy. We are delighted to present forewords from Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio that situate this issue in the present context of the pandemic and great-power competition with China. Essays from Wells King, Julius Krein, and myself then present the case from the perspectives of tradition, theory, and practice, respectively. Next month, we will host a written symposium with numerous scholars describing different policy approaches and offering specific proposals for returning supply chains to the United States. Other topics we hope to address soon include private-sector obligations to the nation, regulation of modern technology, and the reform of organized labor.

We are also looking forward to conducting special Projects—focused research efforts that shed light on various challenges facing American markets, politics, and society. We will release the first of these soon.

Finally, we will publish on other platforms and, once such things are possible again, host and participate in events. To stay informed, please consider subscribing to our mailing list and following us on Twitter @AmerCompass. We welcome your suggestions and criticism. And we look forward to the debate.

— Oren Cass, Executive Director

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Oren Cass

Oren Cass is the executive director at American Compass.

@oren_cass