In 1975, the future president Ronald Reagan said, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”
Today, many leaders of the Republican Party have coalesced around a desire to purge libertarians, with our pesky commitments to economic liberty and international trade, from their midst. If Mr. Reagan’s agenda was a three-legged stool of religious traditionalism, a strong national defense and free-market economics, they hope the latter leg can be reduced to sawdust and scattered to the winds.
The Republican Party seems to become more comfortable with top-down economic interventionism by the day. Rising stars denounce the global market integration that has defined the postwar era. Last year in a speech calling for a national pivot to “common-good capitalism,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida declared, “Our challenge is an economic order that is bad for America.” Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri insists, “It’s time we ended the cosmopolitan experiment.”
“The economic agendas of big-government conservatives could easily be confused for proposals from the left. Consider Oren Cass, a former adviser to Senator Mitt Romney. At last summer’s National Conservatism Conference, Mr. Cass argued for a robust ‘industrial policy’ for the United States. That would include a federal program of research-and-development subsidies, infrastructure investments, ‘bias[ing] the tax code’ in favor of producers of ‘physical things,’ aggressive retaliation against countries that don’t abide by our trade rules and more.
More recently, Mr. Cass has begun arguing for a new model of corporate governance that would privilege worker well-being over corporate profits — in other words, over a company’s ability to operate and employ people. It is meant as an alternative to both the conventional corporate mentality, in which shareholders’ bottom lines come first, and the modern push for progressively inflected corporate social responsibility. Regulatory constraints to impose his new model are justified, he says, because neither of those approaches has produced sufficient investment by companies into their workforces and communities. What constitutes optimal corporate investment is apparently for bureaucrats in Washington to decide.
Advocates like Mr. Cass see this shift as a political necessity for the Republican Party. They believe the shocking outcome of the 2016 election proves that the Republican base is looking for a hand up; the rest of the field was busy mouthing platitudes about liberty, but only Mr. Trump spoke to their concerns.”