Commentary Magazine


The Moral Case for Conservative Economics

I wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard that attempts to explain what’s wrong with the liberal affinity for class warfare. In response to it, one of the really bright political minds I know wrote me and said that the person who “captures the moral critique (in addition to the intellectual one) of Obamanomics” will be the Republican Party’s nominee and the next president.

Whether or not that’s accurate — and I happen to believe there’s a lot of wisdom in it — it does strike me that a compelling moral argument on behalf of conservative economics specifically, and capitalism more broadly, has been sorely missing from the public debate. That case can be made easily enough; the question is who will step forward to make it.

There is, I think, a useful analogy that can be made to welfare reform. The conservative case was far more powerful and effective when welfare reform was framed in explicitly moral terms — when those on the right argued why (a) welfare policies (in the form of AFDC) were inflicting terrible damage on those they were intended to assist, and (b) reforms to the system would lead to greater self-reliance and human flourishing.

Something similar needs to be done on economics. (Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and I try to do it in this monograph, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism.) Conservatives need to expand on their reliance on economic facts and figures and explain why economic growth is the best antidote to widespread poverty and misery; why Leviathan is a threat to liberty and human character; and why capitalism is a civilizing agent and national wealth a moral good. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for a movement that counts Adam Smith (a profound moral philosopher) and Abraham Lincoln (a profound moral thinker) in its pantheon.