Symposium: Putting the Person Back in Populism

This article is in response to “It’s Time for Free Market Populism” by Timothy Carney and is part of the symposium, “Conservatism: What’s Wrong With It and How Can We Make It Right?

Whatever his policies since, candidate Barack Obama was shrewd to spend much of his 2008 campaign skewering D.C. lobbyists. He sensed and exploited a raw nerve in the national psyche: that most Americans espy an unhealthy relationship between the biggest businesses and an ever-swelling government. Why Republicans have refused to acknowledge this is a mystery probed by Tim Carney’s perceptive essay, “It’s Time for Free Market Populism,” and he hints at an unpopular truth: Republicans—and most conservatives—are inconsistent on the topic of big.

Operational on the Left is a paradigm that brands Big Government good and Big Business evil. At some point conservatives stopped rejecting the (false) premise that government and business are antipodes and simply swapped the adjectives: Big Government, evil; Big Business, good.

But, as Mr. Carney observes, it is not so simple. At the highest levels, government and business are (without any need to be conspiratorial about it) in cahoots. “If you’re connected to power or big enough to afford a lobbyist who is, you can do well,” writes Carney. “If not, you’re out of luck.” At the highest levels, government and business are no longer distinct; it is all the same tentacular mass.

“Republicans are uncomfortable telling this story,” argues Carney, “because they are wedded to the idea that we have a real meritocracy or that a rising tide lifts all boats”—the implication being that we don’t have a real meritocracy: Companies and people frequently rise to, and remain at, the top not because of competence but because of cronyism.

Mr. Carney rightly observes that this vicious cycle is economically and politically detrimental to the Right. But ending it is also a matter of conservative principle.

Conservatism, being a disposition rather than an ideology, cannot be imposed top-down. It requires conversion. That can only happen on the level of the person, in the community. The problem with Big Government and Big Business is not just that their alliance disadvantages consumers or potential American start-ups. It is that they are incommensurate with the human person. They are too large to think in anything but numbers, and the numbers—whether of individuals with health insurance or of profit margins—outweigh the rights of the citizen or the freedom of the buyer.

If the result is a new populism, as Mr. Carney suggests, it is a populism that should begin with—go figure—the person.