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Economic Ideology and the Conservative Dilemma

From Edmund Burke's distrust of "sophisters, calculators and economists" to Calvin Coolidge's boast that "the business of America is business" on to George Gilder's "economy of heroes" has been a long journey that conservatism has not weathered well, either intellectually or politically. What was once a robust philosophy concerned with all of humane culture has been reduced to a few slogans in behalf of the "conservative opportunity society" and "democratic capitalism." No need to worry about moral philosophy or social traditions: Tax reform will solve the nation's ills.

Some observers believe that the pressures of competing for political power in a democracy could only produce this kind of degradation of our public discourse. But people seldom pledge their loyalty to a party or a movement solely out of economic motives, and the attempt to build political movements on these motives will prove counterproductive in the long run. The business cycle follows its own pattern, uncoordinated with the election cycle. A governing party that ties itself primarily to economics is betting that the business cycle will always be up in the fall of every even-numbered year. Yet no school of economists has devised a way to ensure that this happens. Defining elections as plebiscites on the business cycle is not just nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense.

Loyalty to a party, movement,...

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