Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation by reportedly nailing 95 theological theses to the door of Wittenberg’s church. The website of Oren Cass’s new think tank, American Compass, could be the start of a similar, long-overdue Conservative Reformation.
American Compass has lofty ambitions. Per its mission statement, it seeks to “restore an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity.” In case that’s too abstract, the website highlights a quotation from 19th-century Whig statesman Henry Clay. “Free trade! Free trade!” the quotation goes. “The call for free trade, is as unavailing as the cry of a spoiled child. … It never has existed; it never will exist.”
This statement is a frontal assault on the most hallowed principle of modern conservative economic policy — that market transactions should be given preeminent weight when setting public policy. That idea is often observed in the breach, as are so many ideals. Taken seriously, as many doctrinaire libertarians do, it means the abolition of most of the modern state and especially its social welfare programs. In the hands of movement conservatives, it has meant an unyielding opposition to any new taxes and almost all new government programs, as well as a strong presumption in favor of cutting regulation and spending wherever possible. Above all, it has meant that government cannot “pick winners and losers” and must remain passive and silent even if the market’s movements create losers of millions of Americans.