When we read, in his new memoir, Patrick J. Buchanan’s statement that “To some of us, America was ceasing to be a democratic republic,” the thought is familiar coming from him. But this iteration takes us back to the Pat Buchanan of the 1960s and 1970s, who said and wrote such things staunchly, wittily, and combatively, as an affirmation of the beliefs of his father and mother, his family and friends, his teachers, his church, and his community growing up in the nation’s capital (a world that he skillfully evoked in a previous memoir, 1988’s Right from the Beginning).
Washington is a company town. Washingtonians tend to grow up wanting to become important inside the company, which is to say inside the government. Buchanan’s run at importance was notably successful. Nixon’s White House Wars: The Battles that Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever takes readers through his filing cabinet, for it is built around the feisty memos that the Nixon speechwriter sent to his boss. It is a follow-up to The Great Comeback (2014), chronicling the years 1965, when he first became a Nixon aide, through the victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
President Trump more than any President in decades has embraced industrial policy. He not only wants government to favor manufacturing, but vows to use the tax law to prevent manufacturers who are here from shifting factories overseas. And auto manufacturing seems to be his particular focus. To be sure, in this respect his policy has some continuity with the Obama administration, which intervened in extraordinary ways—including bending the bankruptcy laws—to bail out U.S. auto companies.
Industrial policy fails to reckon with the ignorance of government. Central decisionmakers lack the information to choose the best services and products in which Americans should specialize. The past shows that what is best produced here tomorrow will not be what is best produced here today: many of our most productive lines of work did not even exist 20 years ago, let alone 50 years ago. An industrial policy that puts up barriers to companies from moving factories abroad creates a more static economy here at home, one less responsive to the seizing of future opportunities in an era of technological acceleration.
That policy clearly makes American consumers and American shareholders in American companies worse off, because companies will fail to locate where they would be most profitable and to deliver products to consumers at the lowest possible cost. But a government-directed industrial policy is also not good in the long run for the American worker, because the industries that can provide good jobs for the long run change over time, and change faster as technology speeds up.
Ben Peterson’s argument for “national sovereignty” as the “political idea of the year” was so challenging and so persuasive that it seems almost cavalier for me to have observed in commenting upon it that it under-explains the fretwork of national sovereignty. My praise of the argument is sincere, and I do think that it should issue in further discussion. I place at the center of that discussion, however, the urgent necessity to clarify what I have in the past called “political prosperity.”
The idea that people embrace national sovereignty for the sake of national sovereignty, in other words as a mere political abstraction, fails to enlist in its support those political dynamics that give currency to national sovereignty in the first place. Of those dynamics, none is more significant than the conditioning of support for national sovereignty upon the aspiration for humane conditions of life. The nation does not exist for its own sake and, more importantly, in a free society the people do not exist for the sake of the nation.