Hazony's Uncharitable Conservatism
In recent months, I’ve been attempting to better understand what conservatism means. Much of what I thought conservatism meant, and what conservatives stood for, was challenged if not outright upended by the election of Donald Trump, and the fervency of his support among much of the Republican party. Fortunately, many conservative thinkers have also felt that conservatism needs a restatement, and several books have been published attempting to reiterate conservative ideas.
Among these, one of the most unabashed must be Conservatism: A Rediscovery by Yoram Hazony. Nobody who reads this book will have the impression the author is attempting to water down his message to ensure the broadest possible appeal. Here we find a full-throated advocacy of a distinct vision of conservatism. In another recent book, The Conservative Sensibility, George Will argues that American conservatism is dedicated to conserving the vision of the American founding, which itself was inspired by the liberalism of the Enlightenment tradition. So, to Will and to many others, conservatism is ultimately about classical liberalism. Not so for Hazony. He rejects the liberal tradition altogether to argue for a conservatism which is fundamentally different from the ideas of the Enlightenment.
There is much I could write about the merits and flaws I find in Hazony’s argument and his worldview. But for today, I want to look at one area where I think he stumbles badly, and consider why I think he goes wrong. The topic I have in mind is his comments on free trade. Hazony spends much less time than Will discussing economics, but among his comments we find the following:
[Free trade] policies were supported not only by the desire of private individuals (and, by extension, corporations owned by private individuals) to exercise their freedom in order to earn higher profits. They were also promoted by governments, media, and academics committed to the liberal theory that there should be no state-imposed barriers preventing individuals and corporations from freely buying whatever they want at the lowest price and selling whatever they want to the highest bidder.
This is a policy couched entirely in terms of the individual, the state, and the individual’s presumptive freedom to do whatever he and his trading partners consent to do without state interference. It is blind to the nation, and to the bonds of mutual loyalty that bind nations and tribes together. Indeed, to the extend that bonds of national loyalty are even mentioned in discussions of free trade, they are described as irrational “market distortions” that may cause inefficiencies that make life more expensive – and therefore presumably less free.
One of the biggest weaknesses in Hazony’s book is his tendency to ascribe views to his ideological opponents without ever quoting them. One is left wondering who, specifically, has described bonds of loyalty as “irrational market distortions” – we are left to guess, because Hazony won’t or can’t name names. Particularly odd is his suggestion that state actions which forcibly prevent people from engaging in free exchange lessens freedom in the eyes of free traders because it makes life “more expensive.”
Hazony has badly misunderstood the arguments he is attempting to engage. Those who support free trade and the tradition of classical liberalism don’t believe the least expensive options are somehow the most freedom enhancing. It is the absence or presence of force, not the magnitude of expense, which is relevant to freedom. Nor is buying from the cheapest source or selling to the highest bidder some terminal value, from which deviating constitutes a market distortion. If someone makes their buying or selling decisions out of a sense of loyalty rather than in search of the most favorable price, no economist in the classical liberal tradition will accuse them of irrationally distorting the market.
The classical liberal tradition presents no obstacles to engaging in the kind of economic decision making Hazony advocates. The problem for Hazony, I think, is that while classical liberal economics allows he and his fellow thinkers to operate according to the values he holds, it doesn’t require everyone to do as he wishes.
In Bastiat’s work The Law, he describes a tendency of socialists to assume that any opposition to state enforcement of some ideal must be motivated by opposition to the ideal itself:
And so, every time we object to a thing being done by Government, it concludes that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of education by the State—then we are against education altogether. We object to a State religion—then we would have no religion at all. We object to an equality which is brought about by the State then we are against equality, etc., etc. They might as well accuse us of wishing men not to eat, because we object to the cultivation of corn by the State.
Hazony suffers from this same misunderstanding. From the fact that classical liberals oppose using the state to force people to behave according to his conception of the “bonds of mutual loyalty,” it must mean classical liberalism is opposed to mutual loyalty and social bonds as such. But he is wrong – and his arguments against liberalism suffer accordingly.
Kevin Corcoran is a Marine Corps veteran and a consultant in healthcare economics and analytics and holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics from George Mason University.