Modern conservatism’s role in replacing neoliberalism: Q&A with Oren Cass

People line up in their cars at a food distribution site in Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative supports a growing movement to replace neoliberalism with a new intellectual paradigm better suited to meeting the challenges of the 21st Century. The initiative funds thinkers, academics, activists and leaders who are working to develop a new “common sense” about how the economy works and the aims it should serve. One of these thinkers, Oren Cass, founded American Compass, a conservative group that aims to restore an economic consensus that better supports family, community, and workers. His recent book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, is a clear-eyed analysis of the shortcomings of markets and the need for conservatism to adapt to the modern era. We spoke to Oren about the need to replace neoliberalism, and how modern conservatism will shape what comes next.

In your book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, you argue that neoliberalism—the growth-at-all-costs approach to economic and social policy—has failed American workers and families. Where do you see the tensions between support for free markets and other traditionally conservative values like supporting families and communities?

There’s not much tension between proper, conservative support for free markets and those other values. Markets offer much for conservatives to love. They protect individual liberty, facilitate private ordering, respect local knowledge, and so forth. Certainly, they organize economic activity more effectively than any other system that people have ever come up with. And markets that do all those things can also be supportive of strong families and communities—certainly, there’s nothing mutually exclusive about this set of institutions. Governing markets in a way that ensures this compatibility is exactly the sort of challenge for which the conservative sensibility is indispensable.

The tension arises from the dogmatic market fundamentalism that has emerged on the American right-of-center and somehow laid claim to the term “conservative.” Rather than see markets as institutions established and managed by the society, and reliant on a variety of rules and other institutions to function well, the dogma holds that the free market is the end unto itself, the freer market is the better market, and some never-specified principle of economics promises that if left to its own devices the market can be trusted to yield good outcomes. That view is in significant tension with the effort to support families and communities, because unconstrained markets can damage the social fabric and in recent years they appear to be doing just that. If you can’t acknowledge that, or your ideology says nothing shall be done about it, you have a real problem. Then again, you aren’t a real conservative.

You founded American Compass on the premise that the free-market fundamentalism that characterized conservative politics for decades no longer works. What gives you optimism that the conservative movement is ripe for change in this moment?

Political coalitions form and shift in response to developments in the real world and the implications of those developments for the interests of various factions and the agendas of various ideologies. The American right-of-center has been characterized for decades by what is called “fusionism” or, to the casual observer of American politics, Reaganism. This coalition, which brought together economic libertarians, social conservatives, and Cold War hawks, made a great deal of sense in the latter part of the 20th century when the battle was between capitalism and communism and America’s market economy was an unprecedented engine of middle-class prosperity.

But the world has changed. Today, for instance, our heavily financialized markets are channeling investment and wealth into narrow geographies and sectors, while large swaths of the population are being left behind. The great geopolitical challenge arises from China’s unique economic model. And so the playbooks adopted by conservatives in the 1980s just aren’t relevant and haven’t been for a while, and people are finally starting to notice. One way to understand Trump’s success is that, even if he didn’t have the answers, he was willing to stand up and point out what was wrong with others’ answers. In Congress today you see a collection of leaders—Senators Rubio, Hawley, and Cotton in particular—who have started doing the work of applying their principles to today’s challenges, and figuring out how that playbook should look. Efforts like those have the political momentum and energy, and they are winning converts on the substantive merits.

What role do you hope a modern conservatism plays in shaping what comes after neoliberalism?

The dominant one. That’s partly a joke—a healthy politics depends on the interplay between both progressive and conservative impulses. Progressives perform an important function in calling attention to very real injustices that conservatives are usually slower to acknowledge, and in pushing the envelope by asking what is possible. And then conservatives play an equally vital role in emphasizing all that is worth preserving, the unavoidable tradeoffs that constrain action, and the realities of human nature that limit what we might accomplish.

So while progressives might rightly identify unfair or harmful market outcomes that require attention, in my experience their instinct is then to suggest something like a Universal Basic Income. Conservatives then say wait, let’s be specific about the actual problem. Are elements of the social contract breaking down? Yes. But the fundamental premise that families must be productive contributors to the wider world and in doing so meet their own needs is a good one, for many reasons we can help to enumerate. So rather than throw that out and replace it with a model where it is the government’s obligation to provide for everyone, let’s look for solutions that would rebuild or reinforce that which works well.

But my comment about the dominant role is also a serious one, in that progressivism is, to my eye, to be quickly rendering itself irrelevant. The American left-of-center has its own dogmas, every bit as fundamentalist as the right-of-center’s, but whereas there is enormous ferment and a serious rethinking underway in the latter, the former seems to be doubling down on more aggressively imposing an orthodoxy totally disconnected from the concerns of typical Americans. I’d love to be wrong about that, and a core tenet of American Compass’s strategy is to find partners across the political spectrum to work with, but it’s a challenge.

There’s a range of voices calling for an alternative to neoliberalism—activists and academics, right-leaning thinkers, and people on the left. How do you envision a new intellectual consensus developing? Is it a question of one viewpoint becoming dominant or a synthesis incorporating a wide range of perspectives?

Can I say “both”? Within the range of ideas are different clusters that are compatible or even enhance each other, whereas between the clusters there tend to be pretty dramatic conflicts. And interestingly, the ideas within different clusters come from very different points on the political spectrum. This is one of the reasons why there is so much talk of political realignment; people coming from very different places are finding situations where their allies come from very different places. So I do think one viewpoint will ultimately emerge, but it’s not as if that’s some individual’s viewpoint and we’ll find ourselves living in so-and-so’s era. What emerges will be a synthesis of overlapping ideas that combine to offer a widely appealing political economy.

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