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Why I signed the Freedom Conservatism Statement of Principles
Classical liberals committed to equal opportunity are conserving the ideals that make America great.
At the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, we describe ourselves as “a liberal think tank for the 21st century.” While the term “liberal” has become associated with the left since the New Deal, it once meant something different:
All of us at FREOPP are big believers in the foundational importance of free inquiry, without which we won’t come up with innovative new ways to improve Americans’ lives. The broad tradition of political liberalism, as described in Wikipedia, is one of “liberty, consent of the governed, and equality before the law”; of evidence-based scientific knowledge; and of “more positive and proactive measures…required to ensure that every individual [has] an equal opportunity of success.”
Today, this older form of liberalism—one that seeks to conserve the founding political tradition of the United States—has opponents on both the left and the right. And since FREOPP’s policy reforms are rooted in using classical liberal principles—individual freedom and free enterprise—to improve the lives of Americans on the bottom half of the ladder, the broader contours of American politics are relevant to our mission.
That’s why I recently helped to organize a group of around 150 signatories to publish what the group calls the “Freedom Conservatism Statement of Principles.” Several of my FREOPP colleagues joined in the effort. It’s an important initiative for many reasons, not least because the free-market reforms that FREOPP scholars have developed can only succeed if we build a network of alliances with those in both parties who share our mission.
The Statement has generated quite a reaction in the politically-oriented press, which you can review at the freedomconservatism.org website. One of the debates that has emerged is about the differences between freedom conservatism and its principal rival, “national conservatism,” a philosophy developed by those who seek to diminish the role of individual, political, and economic freedom among conservatives.
I recently wrote about those differences for National Review, in response to an article by Michael Brendan Dougherty arguing that national conservatism and freedom conservatism aren’t that different. They are very different!
The rising cost of living
One of the things we did in the FreeCon Statement was emphasize our commitment to reducing the cost of living through free-market reforms: a core part of FREOPP’s agenda. As we say in the Statement:
The free enterprise system is the foundation of prosperity. Americans can only prosper in an economy in which they can afford the basics of everyday life: food, shelter, health care, and energy. A corrosive combination of government intervention and private cronyism is making these basics unaffordable to many Americans. We commit to reducing the cost of living through competitive markets, greater individual choice, and free trade with free people, while upholding the rule of law, freedom of contract, and freedom of association.
NatCons sometimes talk about the rising cost of living, but they are very thin on solutions. Indeed, many of the policies they support—like increasing subsidies, regulations, and trade barriers—would only increase the cost of living. When you press NatCons on this, they respond that Americans need to get over their “addiction to cheap stuff.” And while we certainly need to be aggressive in curbing unethical trade practices, especially by China, free markets and free trade have done an enormous amount to help Americans afford many of the things they need.
FreeCons seek to do even more in this regard. And FREOPP has been at the forefront of this cause. What are the biggest drivers of the rising cost of living for Americans? Health care, housing, and higher education. No think tank has done more to apply free-market thinking to these problems, as a group, than FREOPP.
The single worst failing of the 20th century conservative movement was that it was on the wrong side of the civil rights debates of the 1950s and 1960s. As I wrote in National Review in 2021, figures like Barry Goldwater greatly damaged conservatism by opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and driving African-Americans out of the Republican Party:
Whereas Eisenhower had won 39 percent of the black vote in 1956, and Nixon 32 percent in 1960, Goldwater garnered only 6 percent in 1964. As a direct consequence, Goldwater won only six states: his home state of Arizona and five states in the Deep South.
The 1964 presidential campaign was, unfortunately, not an isolated episode. The blunt truth is that many conservative luminaries in the 1960s opposed federal civil-rights legislation. Two future GOP Supreme Court nominees — William Rehnquist and Robert Bork — had advised Goldwater to oppose the 1964 bill. Indeed, in 1963, Bork wrote a lengthy essay in The New Republic arguing that the anti-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act represented “a principle of unsurpassed ugliness.”
In 1960, Goldwater published his celebrated manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, with the help of Bill Buckley’s brother-in-law, Brent Bozell. In chapter four, Goldwater described the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education — desegregating public schools — as an “abuse of power by the Court” and an “unconstitutional trespass into the legislative sphere of government.” He asked Congress to propose a constitutional amendment that would restore states’ rights to segregate their schools. In 1957, Buckley himself argued in National Review that “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures,” including disenfranchising black voters, “as are necessary to prevail, . . . because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”
Buckley and Bork came to regret their earlier views and recanted them. But at the moments when it mattered, conservatives were not on the same side as the people fighting to end Jim Crow and government-enforced segregation. Contrary to conservative rhetoric then and now, it was the federal government that expanded black liberty in the 1960s.
The partisan realignment of 1964 went both ways; Republicans lost the black vote but gained the votes of many southern Democrats who saw LBJ’s bill as a betrayal. Even though six decades have passed, the ripple effects of that realignment are still with us.
The FreeCon statement makes a definitive break from this legacy, by committing its signatories to deploying economic and individual freedom to address the persistent inequality of opportunity faced by descendants of the victims of slavery and segregation:
America’s promissory note. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as containing “magnificent words…a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” Prior to 1964, however, slavery and segregation were enforced by state governments and, in many cases, by the federal government. Many who descend from victims of this system now face economic and personal hurdles that are the direct result of this legacy. We commit to expanding opportunity for those who face challenges due to past government restrictions on individual and economic freedom. We adamantly oppose racial discrimination in all its forms, either against or for any person or group of people.
What does a pro-freedom equal opportunity agenda look like? Let’s take FREOPP scholar Dan Lips’ idea for universal Education Savings Accounts: giving kids of all backgrounds the opportunity to escape failing schools and get the education they deserve. Such a policy is formally race-neutral: everyone is eligible to participate. But there can be no doubt that among universal ESAs’ most significant beneficiaries will be those who live in neighborhoods that were once racially segregated, who are still dealing with the downstream effects of the “separate but equal” regime that the Supreme Court struck down in Brown v. Board of Education.
NatCons are nowhere to be seen on these issues. They talk a good game about opposing woke ideology, but they’re—at best—absent from the field when it comes to addressing persistent inequalities of opportunity. And NatCons aren’t always at their best.
A majority coalition
Fundamentally, FreeCons and FREOPP are both seeking to rebuild a majority coalition for the idea that has done more to expand social mobility than any other: individual liberty. If you’re concerned that America’s commitment to freedom is waning, the solution is to expand the constituency for freedom, by using freedom to improve the lives of as many Americans as possible. This month has been a big month for that cause. I hope you’ll continue to join us in advancing it.
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