Conservatism and the free market

National Review just ran a review of my book, which Karl Rove tweeted out to his followers.

The review has some surprisingly nice things to say. It describes The Reactionary Mind as “well researched and brilliantly argued” and praises my “astonishingly wide reading…masterly rhetorical abilities…wizardry with the pen.” But on the whole the review is quite critical of the book. Which is fine. I’ve gotten worse.

But I couldn’t help noticing the appositeness of this.

Here’s the National Review on my book:

At no point in his book does Robin make any effort to account for the influence of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism on modern conservatism….[Adam] Smith’s influence on later conservatives is ignored.

And here’s Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review (and the modern conservative movement), to me, as quoted in my book:

The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.


  1. Chris Morlock May 19, 2018 at 4:25 pm | #

    “Since its inception, conservatism has devoted itself to producing theoretical justifications for power, privilege, and hierarchy. Conservatives, naturally, would disagree with Robin’s rather uncharitable interpretation. They would insist that conservatism is about defending tradition, maintaining civil society, ensuring the smooth operation of the free market.”

    What a weak semantic difference. My reaction is what”s the difference between power,privilege, hierarchy and tradition, “smooth operation of the free market”? Didn’t the NR just confirm Corey’s thesis?

    • fishbulbgabe May 19, 2018 at 7:29 pm | #

      well said.

    • GRH May 20, 2018 at 11:13 am | #

      “They would insist that conservatism is about defending tradition, maintaining civil society, ensuring the smooth operation of the free market.”

      It’s funny because every Confederate slave master was defending tradition, civil society and the free market.

      “The world is divided between two philosophies. One philosophy of free trade and liberty; a philosophy adapted to promote the interests of the strong, the wealthy and the wise.
      The other, that of socialism, intended to protect the weak, the poor and the ignorant.
      The latter (socialism) is almost universal in free society; the former (free trade) prevails in the slaveholding States of the South…
      Liberty and free competition invite and encourage the strong to master the weak.”
      – George Fitzhugh (Failure of a Free Society 1854)

      “I am an aristocrat – I love liberty; I hate equality.” – John Randolph (1773 – 1833) planter and Congressman from Virginia

      • Jim May 25, 2018 at 12:49 pm | #

        I suspect that when Fitzhugh crafted his remarks, having an advanced education meant that you were “wise” and lacking a formal education meant you were “ignorant”. We know now (and he should have known then) that this is a ludicrous association. There are many educated people who are grossly and usually deliberately ignorant and foolish and there are, e.g. indigenous tropical forest dwellers with no formal education at all who have quite advanced and sophisticated understanding of their local ecology, life skills and the material arts.

        Moreover, no country at that time had free trade at least the way we understand that term now. The United States had extensive import substitution taxes on imported machinery in order to protect its own infant industries as well as tariffs on various commodities and other imports. If Fitzhugh is referring to the importation of slaves that ended by law in 1807. He may be referring to slaveowners treating slaves as commodities, which is quite fair but not what he actually said either.

        Finally, his contrasting of “socialism” with the market economy is a bit odd since there were no socialist countries or societies at the time other than a few tiny movements e.g. the Oneida community of upstate NY and similar.

  2. Marc Brazeau May 19, 2018 at 6:26 pm | #

    I was curious about your response to what they felt was their central critique of the book – the French and Russian Revolutions didn’t turn out to be so liberatory, despite their professed ideals.

    • Corey Robin May 19, 2018 at 8:41 pm | #

      p. 9 in The Reactionary Mind: “This synthesis of freedom and equality [that the left advocates] is a central postulate of the politics of emancipation. Whether the politics conforms to the postulate is, of course, another story. But for the conservative, the concern is less the betrayal of the postulate than its fulfillment.”

      • Marc-Antoine Parent May 20, 2018 at 2:46 pm | #

        I find there is a tendency in such arguments for both sides to compare the idealized theory of their side against the practical results of their opponents. It is much more rare to see theory-to-theory or practice-to-practice comparisons. His article is a common case of this as a whole; he’d be more welcome (in my book) to bring in the reality of stalinism if he acknowledged the reality of, say, Latin American dictators. Your book mostly stays on the theory-to-theory level, and I really appreciate it for that.

  3. mark May 20, 2018 at 5:10 am | #

    ‘Well, what if we’ve been misunderstanding Rove? We’ve been seeing him as a man dedicated to helping angry right-wing billionaires take over America. But maybe he’s best thought of instead as an entrepreneur in the business of selling his services to angry right-wing billionaires, who believe that he can help them take over America. It’s not the same thing. And while Rove the crusader is looking — provisionally, of course, until the votes are in — like a failure, Rove the businessman has just had an amazing, banner year. What’s more, this makes sense of the embarrassing Rove “we’re winning! trust me!” piece in the WSJ, especially notable because — as Sam Wang recalls — Rove so famously declared that he had THE MATH just before the GOP debacle in 2006. It’s hard to think of any good reason to pretend that Romney has it in the bag — unless that pretense gets you one last big slug of business before Election Day.’
    (Paul Krugman blog, November 2, 2012).

  4. Jonnybutter May 20, 2018 at 3:05 pm | #

    “At no point…does Robin make any effort to account for the influence of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism on modern conservatism…Smith…”

    At least the intern got the memo – this is precisely the rhetorical tatck every doctrinaire corpro-libertarian is taking this season. Selective reading of Smith, classical liberalism, yadda yadda

    • jonnybutter May 22, 2018 at 1:08 pm | #

      NRO review of TRM is robotically remorseless, whereas WFB could be not-remorseless.

  5. wisedupearly May 20, 2018 at 8:08 pm | #

    Gonzalez neatly encapsulates the void in conservatism.
    “It is true that Russia and France saw ghoulish monarchs overthrown by popular uprisings; it is also true that both countries descended into dictatorships far more barbaric than the ones they replaced. ”
    Gonzalez appears to believe that this exposition is sufficient to explode the appeal of liberalism. “The results were terrible so it (the revolution) is to be shunned.”
    I would kindly ask Gonzalez to address the problem, not the flawed result.
    What paragraph of the conservative philosophy provides the mechanism to rectify the unsupportable situations that trigger revolutions?
    The current situation in America of government corrupted by business for the benefit of business provides an excellent test case for the conservative “intellectuals”. Since shouting “free markets” five times has not solved the problem, it behoves Gonzalez to argue the conservative solution. After all, isn’t purchasing politicians the exact opposite of “free markets”?

    • De-Loot? (@Dee_loot) May 20, 2018 at 10:33 pm | #

      After all, isn’t purchasing politicians the exact opposite of “free markets”?

      Conservatives tend to argue (or sometimes only to imply) that purchasing politicians is the apotheosis of the free market.

      • wisedupearly May 20, 2018 at 11:19 pm | #

        I have heard that argument made but of course it is completely false.
        Politicians do not own what they are selling. So conservatives are, in fact, the receivers of stolen property.
        Is that now a conservative ideal?

  6. Roquentin May 22, 2018 at 3:54 pm | #

    I think you were pretty dead on with this. It was your book in a lot of ways that helped me to start seeing the demographics of those advocating for a lassiez-faire economy were no coincidence. Basically, the right saw the “free market” as the most surefire way to shore up their advantages and power within the US, and only cared about the “free market” in so far as it served these ends. The pivot to economic nationalism of Trump, as well as the right in many places in Europe, starts to make a lot more sense. The “free market” was no longer serving these ends, so it was discarded just as easily as they picked it up. You could make a similar case about 2008 and the crisis, when these ideal were tossed on the trash heap in favor of “too big to fail.” The whole thing was always a canard, and for the people in control of these banking institutions, when it came time to either adhere to their “free market” ideas and go bankrupt or cast them aside and retain their power, it’s not hard to predict they’d chose the latter.

    Multiculturalism is much more in tune with what neoliberal capitalism wants today in a truly globalized capitalism. Racism is bad for business. I’m sure a lot of conservatives feel betrayed, maybe only now in this late hour starting to understand the forces which were actually in control, that they were being used and not the other way around. That they’d turn to racial chauvanism is totally predictable, but also a testament to how out of place their entire ideology is in the 20th century. As the old man said “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

    • Chris Morlock May 23, 2018 at 5:44 am | #

      Roquentin another apt analysis, very well stated. I can see the reality of global corporatism moving beyond the need to be advocated for by conservatives, but this is in fact a very strange new world. Essentially it’s the “end of history” with a twist- the new fight is between two groups – global corporatism and nationalist capitalists. Both believe 100% in the validity of Market based solutions for everything (and even the corporate structure itself) but disagree on the minutia of how it should be controlled at a fundamental level.

      It’s as if we have drifted so far to the right we find ourselves in an argument among conservatives, with the supposed “Left” playing at guaranteeing that labor and capital flow freely, and their “Right” counterparts wanting to control it more on a local level. It’s like an economic version of the states vs feds battles of old American politics.

      My only point to Corey is that it’s essentially ALL reactionary thought to prop up market based solutions, it’s literally the definition of global corporatism to be inherently reactionary at this point. We can all read the Jacobin and join DSA and be Bernie’s bros all we want, it’s a flea on the side of the dog. If there was a “Left” either in USA politics or somewhere in the world, I would agree we can live inside of Corey’s metrics, but it just doesn’t exist.

      • Roquentin May 23, 2018 at 10:38 am | #


        My take has been, for a while now, that in the hysteria surrounding the election of Trump, a lot of people who usually are more astute have thrown a sober analysis of the situation out the window. It doesn’t help that liberal media outlets are selling us panic and scandal porn 24/7, but I digress. The point is, I’m not talking about what Trump has done in office, in which he has behaved like a garden variety GOP politician which means hardcore neoliberalism, removing even minor regulations on business, attacking collective bargaining for employees, etc. Look at his rhetoric during the campaign, look at what the people voting for him actually wanted. Steve Bannon might have been a piece of shit, but I think kicking him to the curb was symbolic of Trump abandoning this aspect of his campaign.

        I guess where I’m trying to go is that as backwards, ignorant, and racist as the support for Trump was, the support was in no small part a reaction against an economy which was no longer working for these voters. All these right wing populist movements worldwide are offering them a (doomed) attempt to solve the problems of capitalism with nationalism. Trump at least paid lip service to protectionist trade policies, an attempt to restrict immigration which they correctly recognize has the effect of suppressing wages, and gestured like he would try to bring back jobs which had been shipped overseas. He may have been lying, of course, but so do pretty much all politicians trying to get elected. Many liberals and Democrats are still unable to acknowledge this because it would expose them to being to the right of Trump on certain economic issues, which is very sad, but in some cases true.

        I think I’m in a somewhat unique position in that I’ve been inside both worlds. I worked in online video operations for very liberal magazine publisher during the election (which probably goes a long way towards explaining my bottomless contempt for centrist liberals, HRC, and everything attached to them), lost that job a short while afterwards and had to move back to the Midwest. I now work for a construction company, and my coworkers are overwhelmingly conservative. My boss is a dyed in the wool Trump supporter, and I’ve worked for people a hundred times worse than him. It shocked me. These aren’t wealthy people. I guess I’ve just realized that much of the discourse on the left surrounding Trump is vain, shallow, and incredibly self-serving. I have very little patience for it in 2018.

      • Roquentin May 23, 2018 at 11:02 am | #

        I have to tell this story. When I spent many months trying to finding a new job, I came very close to working for a manufacturer of printing supplies and software (EFI if you want to Google it). I decided to Google them. It turns when building their fancy headquarters in northern California, they had brought the South Asian IT workers they generally outsourced IT work to on site. They also decided to pay them the same wages. They worked 12 hour days and got somewhere between $1-$2 dollars an hour. It was a big scandal, they were fined for it, which is why it’s not public record.

        The point of this story is maybe we need to take a long, hard look at why liberals like open doors immigration so much. Yeah, I have nothing but disdain for racism, but you’d have to be a fool not to recognize that this coincides very closely with the needs of big companies to find a very cheap, easily exploitable stream of labor. Far too few are even willing to consider that the fact what they want just happens to coincide with what neoliberal capitalism wants isn’t just mere coincidence, that maybe they were, in spite of all good intentions, doing the bidding of a system they claim to oppose.

        And I feel as though I should add, just as a disclaimer, I firmly support the rights of immigrants, which includes the right to be paid as much as any other US citizen. I think that has always been the darker side of the “huddled masses” fable we are told. Immigration and cheaper labor that is easily exploitable have always been tied closely together, same as it ever was.

        • jonnybutter May 25, 2018 at 5:25 pm | #

          Agree to an extent, Roquentin: cheap labor is a through line story in US history. I’m not an apologist for capitalist American chauvinism, but there is a difference between ‘guest workers’ and immigrants. The former is not in the best spirit of the country, if I may use that phrase. Immigrants may have been exploited miserably, but they weren’t then kicked out usually. They and their children had the choice, as they should have now, to be Americans. The idea that it’s good for the country that they stay here and be Americans used to be mostly uncontroversial not long ago.

          Making citizens used to be one of the things the US did well relative to some older countries, e.g. EU. But now we have raging dementia – complete with bathrobe-urine fragrance – and our joy in life is inflicting pointless cruelty on others and doing mindless damage to ourselves. hoopla!

          • Chris Morlock May 26, 2018 at 1:24 am | #

            I think the problem is discerning between a rabid global capitalist/ free market fanatic making an argument for open borders (ala the Koch brothers) and a true Leftist who is primarily focused on supporting immigration from a moral stance.

            I think the left roots it’s defense of immigrants and immigration from a view of compassion and humanism. In that sense I am pro immigrant and in truth like immigrants as much or more than American citizens. It all makes sense when a true Leftist defends immigrants but also offers true economic justice to citizens who are negatively effected by mass immigration. The story is one of compassion and justice all around- unions and protections for citizens and compassion and dignity for immigrants.

            But what happens when the corporate status quo embraces open borders and completely neglects common American citizens that can’t find work. It not even neglect at this point, it’s down right condescension and hatred. Here the metric collapses, and Trumpism is born.

            But that’s not even the real problem. Just for making this nuanced point I have been labelled “alt-right” by authoritarian Leftists, even called that on this forum over the years, but in reality I am a Bernie supporter, pro union, and deeply supportive of the 2nd bill of rights. How do you protect American workers and advocate for essentially a blindly market based pro-capitalist guest worker policy and then claim to be on the Left? American politics makes no sense and looks like a Twilight Zone episode for a reason.

  7. Michael Licitra May 26, 2018 at 1:48 pm | #

    This is off the subject, but I, for one, would be interested in a Corey Robin article about Thomas Carlyle. (I know, I know, he just had a tweet about people saying things that were off the subject). Carlyle was highly objectionable, but he probably had a fair amount of influence. How does Carlyle fit into intellectual history? Did he have any lasting influence?

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