Christopher DeMuth, the respected public policy analyst, has emerged in recent months as the presiding figure of the national conservatism movement. He says that he has chosen to move on from fusionism, which has informed American conservatism for more than a half-century, and to break ranks with the libertarians, with whom he has been loosely aligned since at least the Reagan years. He explains that he has done so after being “mugged by reality.”
We have no reason to doubt DeMuth’s claim that he has been mugged, perhaps even beaten senseless. But there is every reason to doubt that reality had anything to do with it.
Fusionism is, of course, the brainchild of National Review’s Frank Meyer, and it became conservative orthodoxy in the ’60s with the indispensable assistance of Meyer’s NR colleagues, L. Brent Bozell Jr., and Willmoore Kendall. The NatCons, as DeMuth calls his cohort, have now pronounced fusionism dead. Oh, really? Fusionism has just died? Well, has the notion of a balanced diet just died, too? What about the idea of a hedged investment portfolio? Has it died, as well?
Fusionism has just died — indeed, it could have just died — only if it has been misconstrued as a philosophy rather than a temperament, as a destination rather than an approach. In a democratic republic, whereby Madisonian design coalitions win and factions lose, fusionism offers a path to political prosperity. It offers the only path, so far conceived, toward the ultimate goal of us plain, adjectivally unadorned conservatives: A society rooted in ordered liberty.
This is not an original thought. Jefferson and Hamilton began this very American conversation more than 200 years ago. The question then, as it is today, was: Where shall we place the locus of power in a free and ordered society? Should we place it at the periphery, with the (enlightened) individual, as Jefferson argued? Or should we place it close to the hub, with the (benevolent) state, as Hamilton argued? At any moment in political time — theirs or ours or our grandchildren’s — the trick is to strike the right balance between the competing claims of order and liberty. For it is never the right time to choose one to the exclusion of the other. Why? Because it is axiomatic that if one side wins, both sides lose: Order without liberty becomes tyranny just as liberty without order becomes anarchy. It is in the interest of all concerned, it follows, that the debate between Jefferson and Hamilton should continue unresolved. The question must remain open, pace Dr. Kendall, if we are to generate the creative tension that gives America her dynamism.
Ordered liberty. It is the golden oxymoron of the American experiment.
DeMuth’s break with the libertarians seems to be something more than an irritable gesture but something less than an ideological epiphany. He is tired of libertarian self-indulgence. He wants to get on with the job of saving the country, which, by his lights, means bolstering the indigenous platoons of the good society — church groups, nuclear families, local business, traditional schools, patriotic affirmations, and the rest.
His fellow NatCons are less measured. Spend an hour at the bar with a NatCon and you get the full, splenetic file. In the unbuttoned NatCon version, libertarians spend their time lollygagging around, smoking weed, unlocking jail cells, shipping jobs overseas, belittling religious belief, promoting the connubial prerogatives of all against all, opening borders to the diseased and the demented and, generally speaking, spending down our cultural inheritance as fast as they can. In terms of public policy, it appears to the NatCons that the libertarian solution to every problem, from early-onset climate change to the heartbreak of psoriasis, is a cut in the marginal tax rate. (We note, again, that DeMuth himself will have none of this calumny.)
But neither DeMuth with his ambassadorial polish nor the NatCons with their fratricidal fits are practicing the politics of reality. Theirs is the politics of frustration and, off at the end, the politics of fantasy. (A notably modest fantasy, at that. The NatCon political model appears to be neither Napoleonic France nor Churchillian Britain but Orbanian Hungary. When national conservatism first came on stage, some of us were expecting a bit more fanfare from the brass section.)
The problem with DeMuth’s program lies not, of course, with the freshly painted church or the prim schoolhouse or the old-shoe Elks lodge. It’s with the hulking structure on the outskirts of town. It may be a plant or a mill or a factory and it makes things, or at least it used to make things. It was the kind of place where, along the production line, sons replaced fathers who in their own time had replaced grandfathers. It was the kind of place that generated enough revenue to support the community — through industrial-grade paychecks, taxes, payments to local vendors, and such. It was a pillar, sometimes the only pillar, of a stable community that was proud to call itself a manufacturing town. And it has now assumed a central and almost mythical place in the national conservative construct.
I have some pertinent experience.
Fifteen years ago, I bought a stake in a shoe company. I loved the products. I had worn their moccasins as a kid, their boat shoes as a teenager, and their bluchers as a young professional. They were fine, hand-sewn shoes made in America and, brimming with bright ideas, I thought I could help make and sell a lot more of them. Our company paid honest wages — in many cases, to Stakhanovite single mothers — and we became a pillar of our rural community up near the Canadian border. That was the good part.
The hard part was that, in the making of shoes, there are two heavy and obdurate costs — leather and labor. We could handle the former. It was a fluid, relatively open market and we learned how to maneuver. The latter market, for labor, was even more open, and globally so. We found ourselves competing, first, with China and then with Vietnam, and finally with Malaysia, beyond which point it became impossible to maneuver. When China becomes your high-cost competitor, you have found yourself, almost by definition, in the wrong business.
Over the next 10 years, thanks in part to our bright ideas, we made and sold a lot more shoes, but with our leather costs high and our labor costs higher, the new revenues did not fall to the profit line. We provided more jobs for more hardworking families and in the process became an even stauncher pillar of the community, but we were not so much running a business as pretending to run a business. Ours was, in actuality, a nonprofit organization run for the benefit of employees, their families, and their neighbors, and we survived payroll to payroll on private capital held hostage.
When you run an uncompetitive business, which can be defined as one that produces consistently unprofitable products, you find yourself one day soon with only five real-world alternatives: 1) you can close the operation and stop the bleeding; 2) you can pour in good capital after bad, for whatever psychological and/or supposedly rational reasons can be found to support the decision; 3) you can pray for the arrival of a new owner more hopeful, myopic or philanthropic than yourself; 4) you can sell the operation for parts, which, paradoxically, are frequently worth more than the whole; or 5) you can petition the government for subsidies, which necessarily involve the forced transfer of taxpayer resources to your uncompetitive business, which, now insulated from market discipline, is almost certain to become even more uncompetitive.
In the shoe business, I was lucky enough to find a new owner of the type described in alternative Number Three. But the Lord does not always provide. National conservatives seem to gravitate inevitably to alternative Number Five. Some do so in zigzag fashion, in an attempt to cover their rhetorical tracks. Others say it upfront, as the brilliant NatCon blogger Rod Dreher does: “We need to unapologetically embrace the use of state power.”
This is the practical problem with the nationalist project. There are many uncompetitive plants, mills, and factories out there, and there are sure to be many more as soon as they become cushioned routinely by public subvention. In every NatCon scenario I have seen, manufacturing facilities will be in some way “protected,” which is to say that they will be selected by government bureaucrats for preferential treatment. In every NatCon scenario, that is to say, the sun will be dimmed by a blizzard of crisscrossing subsidies. As Margaret Thatcher might have put it, the problem with national conservatism will be that, eventually, you run out of other people’s money.
(J.D. Vance, a NatCon heartthrob currently running for the Senate in Ohio, has been smart enough to anticipate the cash-flow problem but dumb enough to suggest this remedy: On national television, he recently proposed that “we” — by which he meant, presumably, our central government and not NatCon paramilitary units — should “seize” $20 billion worth of assets from the Ford Foundation, which assets Vance is confident that he and a boiler room full of NatCon program officers could distribute more productively than the lefties at Ford. For the record, I share Vance’s confidence on the spending side. It’s the seizure of private assets that is problematic.)
Let me, speaking for the as-yet-unmugged conservatives among us, say to our brothers and sisters in the NatCon movement what we have said previously to Bush and his compassionate conservatism, to McCain and his American Greatness, and to Romney and his Big Government Republicanism: We wish you well. Who could possibly oppose our God and our country? Who among us would not defend our kin and our soil? But if you propose to go it alone — if you are serious about breaking off from your liberty-loving partners in the conservative coalition — you must begin at the beginning. You must persuade yourselves that this time, following a century’s worth of evidence to the contrary, the planned economy can work.