High-profile Ohio Senate Republican candidate JD Vance’s opposition to US involvement in the Russian-Ukraine conflict gives libertarians reason to cheer his primary victory. Vance speaks about the Ukraine conflict in ways unlike most Republican politicians not named Dr. Paul. Unfortunately, Vance is not so sound on domestic policy.
Most notable for his masterpiece, “Hillbilly Elegy,” Vance is a “common good conservative,” which is the latest version of big government conservatism.
Common good conservatives believe that America’s economic and cultural problems are rooted in libertarianism. They believe the Republican Party and the conservative movement has failed to address the needs of the American people because they have “outsourced” their economic policy to libertarians.
Vance laid out his case against Libertarianism in his 2019 article “Beyond Libertarianism.” Published in First Things Quarterly, and adopted from Vance’s speech at the 2019 Conservative Conference, Vance creates a straw man argument early in his piece when he when he defines libertarianism as “the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn't be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce.”
There may be some libertarians who take this view, but most libertarians would say it is legitimate to criticize market outcomes, and use peaceful means to convince people to make different and better choices. “Libertarian paternalism” is the subject of the book “Nudge,” something to add to your Audible wishlist after you’re done with “Hillbilly Elegy.” What libertarians reject, and Vance urges conservatives to embrace, is the use of government power to compel people to make the choices favored by whoever happens to hold political power at the moment. Vance’s first example of a market outcome, that is supposedly just fine to libertarians but what should concern conservatives, is that many neuroscientists make more money developing apps for Facebook and Google than neuroscientist working to cure Alzheimer’s. Vance’s solution is for conservatives to use “political power” to produce public goods like medical research.
This is ironic since the US Government already spends billions a year on medical research and such spending has always enjoyed strong bipartisan support. It is possible that Alzheimer’s research receives less than it would receive if medical research were funded by private investors with an incentive to put their money where the greatest demand lies. When, as in the case today, research dollars are allocated via a bureaucratized and politicized process, those with the best lobbyists get the most funding. The Alzheimer’s lobby may not have the same clout with lawmakers and the federal health bureaucrats that other disease lobbyists enjoy. So, Vance may be inadvertently making the case for depoliticizing the allocation of medical research dollars.
Vance also doesn’t address the many ways federal regulations deny and delay individual’s access to new treatments and cures.
In fact, government policies are at the root of many of the social ills Vance accuses libertarians of dismissing as merely the results of free people making poor choices. The lack of good job opportunities in many towns across America is a direct result of flawed government policies. America’s education system has declined in tandem with the growth of federal control over the classroom. The trillions spent on no-win regime change wars have drained the US economy of resources that could have been invested domestically, or not used at all – sparing the working class from the ravages of inflation.
Libertarians have been at the forefront of attacking all of these policies.Vance also disregards possible unintended consequences when it comes to his support for breaking up “big tech” companies. The big tech companies became big because they were able to meet the needs and wants of consumers. A social media landscape littered with smaller companies, whose growth was controlled by government, not market forces, delivered what consumers wanted from this new technology.
Vance and his allies may respond to this by saying that the existing tech companies are not serving a large number of their consumers, or at least their conservative consumers, with their “content moderation” policies that disproportionally affect right of center social media users. Vance at least has a partial point, however, since one reason that tech companies silence conservative voices is in response to pressure from Democrat politicians. And, any new powers will also be used to stifle the growth, by removing investors and market value, of new tech companies explicitly committed to free speech. Putting trust in big government — even one led by conservatives — to produce an economy that benefits middle and working class Americans is a recipe for failure. Government’s can enforce laws – but they can’t create great societies, that is something that only a functioning market can do. Common good conservatives should stop trying to move beyond libertarians and instead work with libertarians to restore limited, constitutional government in all areas.