Philosophy, Politics, recent

National Conservatism and the Preference for State Control

A nation that makes greatness its polestar can never be free.
~Abraham Bishop

National conservatism is the new hot political topic. Following a July 14–16 conference in DC that was part intellectual movement building, part political strategy session, many commenters speculated about what this meeting portends for the future of American conservatism. The program at this conference differs significantly from your grandfather’s conservatism. National conservatives are quickly distancing themselves from the older conservatism in several important ways.

First, national conservatives are much more willing to question the efficacy and desirability of markets in allocating a nation’s resources. Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argued that “market economies do not automatically allocate resources well across sectors” and that “policymakers have tools that can support vital sectors that might otherwise suffer from underinvestment,” namely industrial policy. This entails wide-ranging federal programs that subsidize research and development, increase infrastructure investment, and impose “local content requirements in key supply chains like communications,” among other interventions. Not all conference attendees were on board with this kind of a program—Richard Reinsch, editor of the popular Law & Liberty website, was skeptical that the benefits of industrial policy outweighed the costs—but on the whole, it is fair to say economic nationalism is replacing conservatives’ past adherence to laissez-faire as an economic doctrine.

Second, national conservatives are comfortable using political power to combat what they perceive as social and cultural decline. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), a rising star in the movement, gave one of the keynote addresses, in which he condemned the “cosmopolitan consensus” imposed by elites. This consensus, embodied in policy for decades, resulted in “more immigration, more movement of capital, more trade on whatever terms,” which in turn has eroded the American nation’s culture. No more, declared Sen. Hawley: “America is not going to become the rest of the world. And the rest of the world is not going to become America.” This is a broad call to political action. While his speech did not contain specific policy proposals, the grand strategy was clear: political power can and should be used to renew and protect the American way of life. Conservatives have always been willing to fight the culture war, but frequently have balked at using the national government to do it. National conservatives appear ready to discard these qualms.

Third, and most significant, was the conference’s explicit philosophical distancing from what American conservatism historically entailed. Yoram Hazony, the intellectual godfather of the movement, gave an address that made this ideological shift clear. “Today we declare independence,” Hazony announced, “from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism. From the set of ideas that sees the atomic individual, the free and equal individual, as the only thing that matters in politics.” American conservatism indeed took classical liberalism as its lodestar. Conservatives tended to agree with Adam Smith, the great philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, that “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty,” characterized by “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice,” was both the most just and effective political system. Now it seems these widely accepted axioms have been thrown into doubt.

In addition to the above, national conservatives discussed and considered protective tariffs, immigration restrictions, and promotion of national identity, all carried out with the assistance of a friendly national government. Discouraged and angered by older conservatives’ failure to conserve America’s sociopolitical patrimony, national conservatives have begun to coalesce around a bold new political project, the goal of which seems to be both a rejuvenated public square and a robust conception of national greatness.

Admittedly, conference attendees were not unanimous in their support for state-led construction of the good society. Yuval Levin, a noted intellectual in the broader conservative movement, recognized that the political pursuit of national greatness often harms the voluntary civil associations that strengthen a nation and constitute its unity. This reflects an element of national conservatism that is unwilling to depart from the Burkean grounding of American conservatism. Nonetheless, the conference consensus seems clear: it is time for conservatives to overcome their skepticism of the state and, in the words of attendee J.D. Vance, “actually be willing to use politics and political power to accomplish” conservative goals.

It is too early to say whether national conservatism is the new normal for American conservatism. Perhaps the Burkean faction will overcome the currently dominant Rooseveltian faction. Perhaps the movement will strike a middle ground between these two poles, or set out in another direction entirely. But, based on its current course, we have a right to be worried. We have seen political projects like this before. There is one possibility of which we should be especially wary: national conservatism represents the final conquest of the American political spectrum by Prussia.

This claim requires explanation. Starting in the late nineteenth century, many American philosophers, social scientists, and historians took their PhD’s abroad in Germany, which then comprised several different polities. There, they were exposed to the Prussian political-intellectual tradition of an activist state, hierarchically administered by a special governing class. When they returned to the United States to continue their careers in academia and government, they formed the vanguard of what we now call the progressive movement. The vast growth of government in scale and scope, especially the Executive Branch, is a consequence of that movement’s success. Today, there is no significant American politician or thinker on the Left who is not at least a fellow traveler of progressivism.

For a century, resistance to this model of government was waged by those who favored federalism, a separation of powers, and strong Constitutional protection for individual rights.  After the Second World War, the various factions that stood for these things coalesced into the conservative movement. It was always a rearguard action, trying to reverse significant constitutional changes, either de jure or de facto, won by progressives. But now, it looks like those who have taken up the mantle of conservatism are willing to make peace with a vigorous national government. No longer content to get the state back in the role of a referee, they want to make it a player on their team.

When you consider the various proposals of the national conservatives, it certainly seems like they embrace a right-wing version of the Prussian model that was successfully appropriated by the Left a century ago. Those who identify as national conservatives may bristle at this label, but it is a fair characterization. Empowering the state to advance a concrete vision of the common good, guided by enlightened statesmen with the right set of social values, is the hallmark of the Germanic policy sciences.

Despite their claims to represent the will of the people, especially those left behind by the globalist-cosmopolitan consensus of the past 30 years, national conservatives are flirting with a vision of the state that is inherently hierarchical and elitist. The relevant personal analogy here is Federick II, or perhaps Bismarck. The model national conservatives are considering only works with a state divided into rulers and subjects. The associational model of government, in which all are citizens and none are masters, fits less well with nationalist conservative goals.

National conservatives have some valid concerns. They recognize the problem of perpetual budget deficits and the accumulation of national debt, which burdens future generations before they can exercise their right of political voice. They also understand that many features of the post-New Deal administrative state impede democratic self-governance. The issue is not primarily with their ends, but their means. Unless they change course, they run the risk of subjecting New World self-governance to Old World state-building. If national conservatives take up the weapons of their enemies to fight them, they will become that which they sought to destroy.

The great virtue of the older kind of conservatism was its organic link to the republican democracy of the Founding. Making peace with the power of the national government to achieve admittedly desirable social goals will sever this link. If this happens, the American tradition of government will no longer have a significant voice in the public square. All Americans will be worse off for it.


Alexander William Salter is an assistant professor in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University.  He is also the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute.  His scholarly and popular writing can be found at his website:


  1. “National conservatism” just isn’t that catchy. Hey: isn’t “state control” == “socialism”? Too bad “national socialism” is already taken.

  2. We can now choose between communism or fascism. How lovely we are with primarily government-mandated K-12 education.

  3. I think you’ve covered the problem well, but are perhaps too pessimistic about the likelihood of going down a Rooseveltian or Prussian path. There is the potential for some synthesis between on the one hand today’s conservatism with its roots in Classical Liberalism and strong influences from more recent Libertarian thinking, and on the other hand, this suggested call for leadership by governmental elites. The essence of most modern Libertarianism, outside of Objectivism, is that ‘the government which governs best is that which governs least,’ while acknowledging the necessity of certain governmental functions which should not necessarily be left to private contracting. The question is where to draw those boundaries. There is also the assumption that governance is performed with the consent of the governed, which perhaps allows the ‘governed’ to ask for more governance in some cases.

    Of course the concern you express is valid – ‘more governance’ can quickly explode into the government determining how much more governance there should be – especially if we turn the government over to Prussian-trained elites, which is of course where we are today.

    The seeds of the National Conservative conversation come from a couple of trends within the past generation. If we look back into the last century, and evaluate it as economic historians, most observers would say that Progressive policies worked pretty well from the turn of the century thru the New Deal and into the Post War. While Buckley and his associates, coming together from somewhat different philosophical perspectives, saw some problems or ‘contradictions’, to use the Marxist term, things went well enough for long enough, and with some corrections under Reagan, that Progressivism, in the eye of the public, was not discredited. And so modern ‘Conservative’ thinking never really gained ascendancy.

    Various things which transpired in Obama’s time perhaps made it clear to ‘the eye of the public’ that Progressivism is indeed broken, and its broken largely for the reasons Buckley’s crowd might have anticipated – but not entirely so. The leading ‘conservative’ candidates for the Republican nomination failed to address several aspects of our national ‘crisis’: (1) endless war overseas, (2) free trade ‘run amok’, where we partner freely with those who not only do not share our core ‘Enlightenment’ values, but deliberately cheat… And who have not been ‘transformed’ toward democracy by free trade in the ways we expected, and (3) technology and social media controlled largely by a few corporations which have become Supranational. For none of these three does Buckley’s conservatism provide much framework. The second and third issues, which are somewhat intertwined, are in fact to some degree the result of the deregulations advocated by conservatives, over-layed onto otherwise Progressive government. In essence, conservatives hold part of the blame for putting Elite capitalists in charge of far more than mere ‘commerce.’

    And so this is why there needs to be some adjustment… some correction toward an assertion that America is Exceptional, and that the ‘American System’ is at root ‘Of, for and by the People.’ America can be a light unto the World, but as Hawley says, it is neither our power or our duty to transform the rest of the world. It is our duty (to ourselves) to keep the light burning.

    I don’t like the term ‘industrial policy’ any more than you do, but minimally we need outward facing policy which protects the ‘stuff’ which makes us uniquely American. That’s why I see this as the necessary start of a conversation, but not necessarily the entry for Prussian Bureaucracy. Even so, I might prefer government by Prussians over government by tech oligarchs.

  4. What you are describing is not particularly Prussian at all. “Empowering the state to advance a concrete vision of the common good, guided by enlightened statesmen with the right set of social values” is a description of every single successful pre-Enlightenment Western political system, from Republican Rome, through Augustus, Charlemagne, and Louis IX (for those integralists!). The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on emancipation and atomized freedom, tended to erode that goal (although it was still the default position of states, which, including our own, were very much “hierarchical and elitist”). National conservatives don’t so much embrace Prussians as reject the inevitable end result of the Enlightenment, which is to destroy that hierarchy and elitism, and ruin the state and the country.

  5. I believe Salter is spot-on in his analysis of the internal segmentation of Conservatism. I don’t like the trend. As others have alluded to, this particular turn towards state control runs in the opposite direction of the traditional American definition of freedom. I see this emerging as a by-product of a growing rural-urban dichotomy in this country - a cultural change brought about by the ever-increasing divide between metro-urban culture and rural culture. While this divide is nothing new, the gap between the two has never been wider. From every “hot” political topic to the larger questions about state-control versus market forces, equality versus liberty, American culture is in a period of conflict. “Conservatism” seems to be going through a similar “rough patch” in which those who are angered with a perceived change or loss of culture are now using a new rubric (i.e. redefined Conservatism) to undergird their proposed means (i.e. the State) to more effectively stem the rate of or to halt the “change”. The better way to do this is to emphasize and to promote more persuasively the benefits of classic American Conservative values (that Salter lauds) such as laissez-faire, tolerance, limited government and rugged individualism, rather than fueling a climate of increasing discontent, governmental disfunction, partisanship and tribalism, all of which are the proverbial “road to Abilene” for the United States.

  6. “The associational model of government, in which all are citizens and none are masters, fits less well with nationalist conservative goals.”

    This is asserted but not developed. Why would that be so? The left celebrates the fact that they are social engineers, the hard right has always hated that, but why would a moderate conservative position – that limited efforts at social engineering could be contemplated – be undemocratic?

  7. You get more of what you pay for. The city of Seattle spends $600M/year on its homeless; the city of Seattle gets lots of homeless.

    smart socialism

    That depends: obviously, the yearly $100,000 isn’t given to a homeless person in Seattle, but rather most of it is paid to the practitioners of the caring professions. Which means that it is indeed smart socialism to maintain – for a tidy price – the hordes of the homeless rather than eliminate them (or minimize their #s).

    If some dolphins figured out that they can make a good living by rescuing monkeys from the water, which one would those dolphins prefer: if fewer monkeys fell in the water, or more?

  8. Certainly.

    propose a brand new bureaucracy: The Ministry of Ministries […] Every bureaucrat should understand how bureaucracies tend to bloat and should be on guard against it all the time

    The irony is delicious.

    I’m not trying to put you down: I just wanted to point out how easy it is to slide into this mindset. The mindset of:

    • something must be done
    • this is something
    • this must be done

    (with apologies to Scott Greenfield on whose blog Simple Justice I read this first).

    Seattle should be temporarily taken into care

    I’ve used Seattle as an example because Seattle’s homeless policy became ‘controversial’ recently, and accordingly there was some media coverage of the issue (some of which I’ve read and as such am conversant with the main parameters of the case). But I’m reasonably sure that the same thing is happening all over the USA & Canada. The particular ratios might differ (it might be that San Francisco spends only $50K/year per local homeless), but the scam is the same: find the ‘victimized’ group, and provide them with “rescue services” which gets charged to the net taxpayers at an amazing rate.

  9. Well, I grew up in socialist Hungary (The People’s Republic of Hungary, to be precise) & I lived it & I understand that they worked the socialist scam in a somewhat different manner. For examples (and a thorough theory) see this.

    it is not absolutely inevitable

    You’re right to the extent that Lee Kuan Yew’s socialistic policies in Singapore were quite successful because he monitored their execution with a very strong hand. So there’s the possibility of successful socialistic policies being implemented by an enlightened dictator (authoritarian leader). But I always contrast Singapore with Hong Kong: Hong Kong developed economically just the same way as Singapore, but Hong Kong did it free of socialistic policies. And I firmly believe that if it isn’t necessary to pay the price of living well under an authoritarian regime employing socialistic policies because the same economic performance can be provided by a (more) laissez-faire free market economic arrangement, then one shouldn’t pay it.

    My head tribune

    You’re trying to fix the ills of politics & bureaucracies by more politics & bureaucracies. You’ll fail the same way as all before you who employed this method failed.

  10. Nail head, meet hammer, which has been wielded with such skill and aplomb by neoteny.

    Like the old saying goes, the number of social problems in any society increases exponentially as the number of social workers in that society increases. The same could be said in relation to all forms of bigotry which increase in line with the rise of so-called anti-bigotry activists.
    But the paradox is that it is far more glamorous being an activist than being an anonymous worker. The semi-bright will thus always be attracted to activism, because it gives the illusion that they are more important than they really are.

  11. Oh I don’t doubt that: being proud of one’s tribe is a quite natural feeling, something I indulged myself in on occasions (regarding libertarianism). It’s just blinds one’s vision. Besides: the thing Hoffer identifies is the true belief in activism, in joining a (nowadays virtual) mass movement, a virtual tribe.

    For the thinking type, the best antidote is participating in the internal debates of the tribe & realizing that principled positions are extremely rare everywhere.

  12. There is one classic ‘Yes Minister’ episode that details this very problem brilliantly. :slight_smile:

  13. Just thought I would chime in with a great quote from iqsquared that I just watched:

    Towards the end of his life Stanley Baldwin was asked whether his career in politics had been guided by the ideas of any political thinker. Perhaps surprisingly, since the former Conservative prime minister was not known to take much interest in ideas, Baldwin is reported to have replied that the thinker who had influenced him most was Sir Henry Maine, the Victorian jurist and author of Ancient Law (1861). Maine had argued that human history was a process of development in which societies that were based on hierarchy and command were progressively replaced by ones based on freedom and consent. It was this grand idea of history as a movement from status to contract, Baldwin said, that had inspired him throughout his political life. But then, seemingly perplexed, Baldwin paused. ‘Or was it’, he asked, ‘the other way round?’

    Here is the link to the discussion:

    My point being that top-down federally controlled policies, by their very nature are a reversion of this process. Because a system that devolves power and limits government enhances the sovereignty of the individual, whilst the concentration of power into the hands of a relative few, disconnected from their constituents and able to operate more and more, on the basis of secret technical knowledge of how best to manipulate the system to retain power, inherently favours the passing of such knowledge to favoured acolytes and family members. A reversion to status.

  14. Yes. It is a dilemma. Thanks for mentioning St. Jane, one of my heroes.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

38 more replies