Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) recently gave an address to the Heritage Foundation entitled "What Conservatives are For." I think he intended a double meaning with the title, as he addressed both the purpose of conservatism, and the positions conservatives should support.
I heard a bit of this speech on the Rush Limbaugh show Wednesday afternoon, and my interest was piqued, so I found the full transcript and video at Senator Lee's official website. It's well worth reading or viewing in full. This passage sets the tone and theme of the speech:
In Washington, it is common for both parties to succumb to easy negativity. Republicans and Democrats stand opposed to each other, obviously, and outspoken partisanship gets the headlines.
This negativity is unappealing on both sides. That helps explain why the federal government is increasingly held in such low regard by the American people.
But for the Left, the defensive crouch at least makes sense. Liberalism’s main purpose today is to defend its past gains from conservative reform.
But negativity on the Right, to my mind, makes no sense at all.
The Left has created this false narrative that liberals are for things, and conservatives are against things.
When we concede this narrative, even just implicitly, we concede the debate… before it even begins.
Later comes a remark from Senator Lee that I found provocative, as he extols the virtues of conservatism at building communities. Contrary to all their rhetoric about "community organizing," the Left's policies crush small communities beneath the heel of the central State. Conservatism, properly understood, fosters community strength by decentralizing power, putting destiny in the hands of individuals, voluntary associations, and relatively accountable local politicians. Lee explained the conservative vision as follows:
This vision of America conservatives seek is not an Ayn Rand novel. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a society of “plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow, too.”
The great obstacle to realizing this vision today is government dysfunction. This is where our vision must inform our agenda.
What reforms will make it easier for entrepreneurs to start new businesses? For young couples to get married and start new families? And for individuals everywhere to come together to bring to life flourishing new partnerships and communities?
What should government do – and just as important, not do – to allow the free market to create new economic opportunity and to allow civil society to create new social capital?
We conservatives are not against government. The free market and civil society depend on a just, transparent, and accountable government to enforce the rule of law.
I'm not looking to carry water for Ayn Rand, or pick a fight with Lee over trivia, but I would point out that the heroes of Rand's novels sit at the head of corporations. They're not lone wolves doing everything themselves. Hank Rearden wasn't running around laying train tracks with his bare hands. And while Rand extolled the virtue of enlightened self-interest, this pointedly was not meant as an endorsement of predatory robber barons. One of her basic themes was that free people, acting together voluntarily, produce greater general prosperity than central planners wielding the whips of State power.
This is a significant point, and it supports the rest of Lee's speech, so rather than contradicting him, I would sing a slight variation on his melody. Free-market capitalism is all about community. Even the most basic transaction involves at least two people. Commerce is a form of communication, and communication is essential to cooperation. Voluntary forms of cooperation demand far more intricate communications than central planning. The statist need only bark a few simple commands, and occasionally give his whip a menacing snap.
If commerce is communication, then prosperity requires the free flow of information. Wealth is data, and vice versa. The citizens of a prosperous society know the true value of goods and services. They are able to sense opportunities for profit, and swiftly assemble groups of investors and workers to exploit them.
In a socialist economy, by contrast, the level of information available to the populace is very poor. No one knows what anything really costs. Prices are distorted by controls and subsidies. Government services are funded with a great, bland, uninformative slush of taxation and borrowing. Accountability and transparency become bitter jokes. Individual citizens become so confused about the value of goods and labor that the poor, damned souls may actually start referring to the "gifts" of the State as "free!" We can only marvel at the sheer foolishness of someone who thinks health care or mandated contraceptives are "free"... and the sinister dishonesty of those who promote such ignorance.
Low taxes, a light regulatory burden, and other policies designed to stimulate commerce result in the ready formation of small businesses. These local operations tend to have a vested interest in the health of their community. It's no coincidence that many of them become sponsors for community events and local public works. Sure, that's also good advertising, which might be dismissed as a selfish motive... but advertising is a form of communication. Also, a healthy community creates conditions in which individuals and organizations voluntarily take actions for the good of all. That's the difference between a community and a prison camp.
Another difference is that people can choose to leave a community, because it's not surrounded by razor-wire fences and guard towers. The community wants to persuade people to stay. Persuasion means more communication, more data, more wealth...
As Senator Lee said, wise and just government facilitates honest commerce. Prosperity does not follow lawless anarchy. Another way to picture the proper role of government is that reasonable, fairly-enforced laws ensure a pure flow of accurate data through the marketplace. No one can be robbed, cheated, or defrauded with impunity. Those crimes are corruptions of the data flow, and they make people reluctant to cooperate with each other. People huddled fearfully in their homes are not "free" in any meaningful sense, and free choices cannot be made based on fraudulent premises. That's one of the reasons socialism is such a bitter disaster: the lack of valid knowledge about costs and benefits makes it impossible for citizens to exercise true freedom. In fact, the pursuit of "free" benefits makes citizens more likely to turn on each other in a predatory fashion than the most hostile caricature of Ayn Rand's philosophy.
No system of ordering society and allocating resources has ever proved more respectful to individual rights and dignity than free-market capitalism. And only the voluntary cooperation of free people can build families into a "community." Senator Lee is absolutely on target when he speaks of how urgently this truth must be conveyed to the American people. The union of free wills will always be far more powerful, and prosperous, than the limited vision of an elite few, imposed on the dependent and indentured.