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New Right, Same as the Old Left
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New Right, Same as the Old Left

J.D. Vance & Co. are starting to sound a lot like Bernie Sanders.

So whenever I criticize Republicans, or other right-wingers, I invariably get complaints from folks along the lines of, “Why don’t you criticize liberals and Democrats?”  

Never mind that I criticize liberals and Democrats quite often. The thing is, when I criticize Republicans these days, I often feel like I’m criticizing liberals.  

For instance, until a few years ago, it was a standard and uncontroversial conservative principle—and Republican talking point—that the state shouldn’t “pick winners and losers” in the economy (if you don’t believe me, check out this Republican press release, including the URL). With the exception of Pat Buchanan, in my lifetime, virtually no prominent conservative championed anything like industrial policy, corporatism, or “economic planning.” 

Of course, there were always specific exceptions to this rule. National security hawks carved out allowances for military preparedness. Some agrarian types defended farm subsidies for reasons that ranged from the romantic to the ridiculous. And of course, Republican commitment to free markets and limited government often buckled in the face of political expediency (even when Marco Rubio was Mr. Tea Party, he defended sugar subsidies). But on the whole, this view was the standard orientation of American conservatives in the Anglo-American tradition for the last century (It’s older than that, but things get more complicated in the 18th and 19th century when laissez-faire ideas were rightly considered left-liberal and monarchist and theocratic ideas were considered conservative. Still, no less than Edmund Burke said that, “in its ultimate results” The Wealth of Nations was “perhaps the most important book ever written.”)

Flowing from these convictions, it was a fairly standard view on the right that taxing business amounted to taxing workers and consumers. While there were practical arguments for doing so, generally the best a conservative could say about even minimal taxation on business was that it was a necessary evil with limited utility. Slap a big tax on a corporation and the corporation will have no choice but to pass along the cost by raising prices, or cutting jobs, salaries, investment—or all of the above. My own view remains that, ideally, we wouldn’t tax corporations at all for precisely these reasons. 

Enter JD Vance:

What to make of this? I’m not a big fan of what these CEOs are doing, and I think it is ripe for criticism. But I am incapable of seeing this as anything other than a move leftward—at least under the old rules, which are still the rules I abide by. If Bernie Sanders announced that we should tax companies that don’t prioritize diversity, inclusiveness, and combating climate change I would say, correctly, that this is a “liberal” or “leftist” idea. But taxing companies that object to certain election laws is “conservative”? How so?

The response, I think, is that the ends are different even if the means are identical. I’ll get back to that in a second. But first it’s worth parsing this stuff a bit more. Vance thinks he can identify the corporations paying “good wages” with such specificity that they can be culled from the ones paying “bad wages” and rewarded with lower taxes. As for the ones not paying good wages, they should have their taxes raised. How will that improve wages, I wonder?

Of course, he doesn’t want to penalize companies to make them pay good wages, he wants to soak them for participating in a conference call. But I’m still confused: Does he know whether they pay good wages or not? Does that matter? Is participation on a Zoom call evidence of screwing workers? Or is it so egregious it’s worth punishing workers anyway? Where is the transitive property here? Delta, American Airlines, United Airlines, Starbucks, Target, LinkedIn, Levi Strauss, and Boston Consulting Group were all on the call. Do they all pay bad wages? Also, other than in the colloquial sense of “higher pay,” I don’t know what “good wages” are. Like prices, wages in a free-market economy are for the most part what the market will bear. 

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Starbucks is a caffeine-peddling sweatshop (it’s not by the way). Taxing these companies for offering an opinion on Georgia’s laws—correct or not—will still hurt employees and consumers. Unless you utterly reject the idea that corporations will pass on these costs and that taxing them will just come out of “excess profits” (whatever those are). Lots of liberals think this way.  They insist that corporations aren’t people, but then they treat them like they are anyway.  By the way, I’ve always loved how liberals decry the idea that “corporations are people” in one breath and in the next breath call them “greedy.” If they aren’t people, maybe you shouldn’t ascribe human emotional states to them?

Anyway, my point is this: Taxing corporations for their political stances has the same net economic effect, regardless of what those stances are. 

It gets even more muddled: “No more subsidies to the anti-American business class.” Wait, are we talking about subsidies or taxes? Because those are completely different things. Unless, again, you subscribe to the classically progressive view that all the money in existence belongs to the government and tax rates are simply the means by which the state decides how much you get. 

By this logic, low taxes are a subsidy. But this logic is ridiculous, and profoundly unconservative. If we’re talking about real subsidies—i.e. the government taking money from one group and giving it to another—then by all means let’s get rid of them. But not just for the “anti-American Global Oligarchy”—whatever the hell that is. Let’s get rid of subsidies for the America First companies, too. 

And about this “global oligarchy.” The idea is a conspiracy theory, no different than Bernie Sanders’ prattling about the 1 percent. Sanders often assumes that any political obstacles he faces are the result of “millionaires and billionaires” manipulating the system. And so does Vance. He says, “Establishment Republican apologies for our oligarchy should always come with the following disclaimer: ‘Big Tech pays my salary.’” Not only is this a baldly false accusation, it’s a standard left-wing rhetorical technique that assumes political disagreement is proof that political opponents have been bought off by malefactors of great wealth. 

But taxing companies out of partisan spite isn’t just a bad and unconservative approach to economics, it’s also a bad and unconservative approach to the Constitution. 

A decade ago, Citizens United v. FEC was hailed by conservatives who championed free speech, particularly political speech. Recall that the Obama administration literally argued before the Supreme Court that the government could ban films—and even books—near election time if they could be viewed as supporting a candidate. But Vance wants to “raise their taxes and do whatever else is necessary to fight these goons” for the crime of disagreeing. “Whatever else is necessary” is a pretty disturbing catchall.

When David French pointed out that Vance’s proposal might run afoul of the Constitution, Vance responded, “David French is fine with submitting to our oligarchy or complaining about it. But what must always be avoided is *action.* God forbid we do something.”

This, too, is a classic left-wing response to constitutional objections. Don’t pester me with constitutional jibber-jabber about what the Second Amendment means, we need to take action! If it saves just one life it’s worth it!

Now, I do think Vance is sincere and I’ll even go so far as allowing that his heart is in the right place, even if he won’t allow that maybe his opponents have sincere and decent convictions as well. And I do feel some regret singling him out based on a couple tweets. But his approach is representative of so much of the “new conservative” thinking these days. It’s old liberal thinking gussied up as bold new conservatism. 

Which brings me back to ends versus means. Whether it’s the new results-oriented jurisprudence, or the right-wing jihad against “Big Tech,” or “common good capitalism,” or open-ended “nationalism,” the right’s ends are different than the left’s. Heck,  I probably even agree with some of the ends they’d like to see. But I can’t sign up for the means, for three closely related reasons: one principled, one prudential, and one political.

The principled reason should be obvious, so I won’t belabor it. I don’t want the government—whether run by Republicans or Democrats—engaged in economic planning and judicial legislating. 

The prudential reason is that it won’t work. It won’t work for the reasons embedded in the principle. I think Hayek’s warnings against planning apply every bit as much to right-wingers as they do to left-wingers. Vance, Hawley, and all those guys are smart. I’m happy to say they’re smarter than me. But they aren’t smarter than the market or the constitutional order. 

The political reason, which is also prudential and principled, is that it will backfire. Trump “governed” without heed to dogmatic constraints. He delivered certain “wins” on policy, to be sure. But his presidency also invited much of what we’re seeing now from the left. Indeed, the conservatives suddenly rediscovering deficits and fiscal restraint are reaping the fruits of frittered-away credibility on such issues. 

Do we really think that, if conservative judges embrace the idea that they can mint laws tailored to their cultural beliefs, then this won’t give liberal judges even more license to do the same? And what would be the principled argument conservatives would invoke in their opposition? “We get to impose our values and give voice to our consciences, but you don’t”? Good luck with that. A standard conservative argument held that Roe v. Wade was a disaster in no small part because it imposed a single standard on the country and invited a profound backlash. If the Supreme Court totally banned abortion outright in a reverse Roe v. Wade, it would certainly be a victory for the pro-life cause. But I doubt it would be a lasting one.  

Undergirding so much of populist-nationalist thinking these days is the assumption that nationalists and populists have the numbers on their side. But here’s the thing: They don’t. Biden is more popular than Trump was—by a wide margin—at any moment of his presidency. The silent majority is neither silent nor a majority. 

Unless the plan is to severely shrink suffrage in this country—which sometimes seems like it is the plan—arguing that the state should have more power and fewer constraints on it strikes me as insane. Let me quote my favorite bit from A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.

One last point: Just because the rules of liberal democracy or “procedural liberalism” are “neutral,” that doesn’t mean they are amoral. Due process, free speech, limited government, federalism, individual liberty, property rights, and free markets are prudentially wise, yes, but they are also morally superior to their alternatives. They are not simply “tools” to be discarded for some new faddish DIY project. 

Conservatives used to understand this. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.