Most conservative law students of the past three decades can probably recite by heart the principles of the Federalist Society, dutifully declared at the opening of every FedSoc event on every campus by a smartly dressed young officer of the chapter. They begin: “That the state exists to preserve freedom.” Half-heard, between bites of free pizza—or Chick-fil-A, if the chapter has its act together—the phrase conjures vague allegiance to a libertarian notion of limited government. But as Alida Kass, FedSoc’s vice president and director of strategic initiatives, has become fond of pointing out, the principle does not specify which threats to freedom the state must protect against. What are the implications of this principle in modern America, where some of the greatest threats to freedom appear to emerge from the purportedly private sector, in forms against which the state’s traditional police powers are powerless?
Conservatives have awakened to this question in numerous contexts: the limited number of online platforms controlling the dissemination of information, for instance, or the limited number of institutional investors controlling the flow of capital. These are important problems, but problems that the right-of-center’s free-market dogma can largely accommodate and, with little ideological disruption, attempt to solve. What’s lacking, as the market fundamentalists see it, are competition and attention to shareholder interests. There’s nothing wrong with the market, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that markets cannot fix.
Fewer dare tread in the ideologically fraught realm wherein the market appears inherently coercive and capitalism, far from synonymous with economic freedom, appears in tension with it. But Sohrab Ahmari has, as the kids say, “gone there.” In Tyranny, Inc., he takes aim at the simplistic story of free markets as happy places where independent economic actors agree to mutually beneficial exchanges. “‘Consent,’” he says, “is the fig leaf covering over the sheer power of private individuals and entities to coerce as consumers, workers, and citizens.” And yet, to mix metaphors, this fig leaf is the keystone of the elegant facade that market fundamentalists have constructed to present the market as a reliable optimizer of welfare for all. Remove it and the exterior wall collapses, revealing the rather more shabby reality of the American economy within.