Amid all the controversy surrounding last weekend’s CPAC conference, not enough attention has been paid to Steve Bannon’s articulation there of the Trump administration’s policy of “economic nationalism.”
If you were wondering whether Donald Trump is really going to remake the Republican Party in his image, this is a good place to focus your worry, because Bannon explained his outlook by taking a famous aphorism from Ronald Reagan—the last person to remake the Republican Party—and turning it completely on its head.
Bannon explained Trump’s protectionist policies by declaring, “we’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders.” He got this formulation from Jeff Sessions, our new attorney general, who once wrote that “the United States is a nation with an economy, not an economy with a nation.” And where did Sessions get it? He was quoting a National Review editorial, which is kind of ironic when you consider that National Review was one of the centers of the NeverTrump movement.
Like I said, all of this is reminiscent of a famous aphorism from Ronald Reagan: “We are a nation that has a government, not the other way around.” Except that the meaning of the new Trump version is the exact opposite.
The point of Reagan’s quote was to say that there are myriad aspects of our lives as private individuals and members of civil society that precede government—both historically and in order of importance. These include family, religion, science, ideas, art—and yes, commerce. People have been growing food, making tools, building structures, and trading with each other for many more thousands more years than they have had any modern system of government. More broadly, the individual’s desire to provide for himself and his family and to achieve prosperity through trade is a central goal of human life which government is required to safeguard. The values of work and prosperity come first, and government is subordinated to those values.
This is very clear in the views of our Founding Fathers and in the Lockean philosophy of government they adopted. In “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” which was basically Thomas Jefferson’s audition for writing the Declaration of Independence, he described it this way: “America was conquered, and her settlements made, and firmly established, at the expense of individuals, and not of the British public. Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual; for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold.” This was specifically in answer to claims made by the government of King George III that America’s economic success was owed to the British government and therefore subject to its control.
Jefferson’s words were inspired by the English philosopher John Locke, the man who came up with all of those ideas about inalienable rights and the consent of the governed. Locke also said that the purpose of government was to safeguard the property earned by its citizens through labor and trade, and not to dispose of their property for its own ends. So America’s deepest roots lay in the idea that government has no claim to dominance over private economic activity. It is the idea that we are a people and an economy with a government, not a government with an economy.
This the basic contradiction of American “nationalism.” America was founded on the idea that the nation as a political entity—in other word, the government—should always be subordinate to the liberty of its individual citizens. After all, if our Founding Fathers had been nationalists, they never would have founded the country at all, because their national identity was “British.” It was their dedication to individual rights and limited government that caused them to abandon that national identity and form a new one.
But Bannon is trying to do to economic freedom what Reagan did to Big Government: cast it out as something distinct from and subordinate to “the nation.” For Reagan, Jefferson, and Locke, economic life was one of the things that was part of “the nation” that was distinct from and prior to government. For Bannon, it is government that is part of “the nation” and more important than the free choices of private individuals. That’s why he and his ilk tend to end up sounding like British Loyalists of the Mercantilist school—or like good old-fashioned 20th-Century Democrats: railing against big corporations and the rich for not doing enough to meet the goals set by government.
Thankfully, economic nationalism is not the whole of President Trump’s economic agenda. Bannon named one of the other goals as the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” reining in the unchecked power of the regulatory agencies. He is right to point out that this is how the left always gets its way: “if they can’t get it passed [in Congress], they’re just gonna put in some sort of regulation in an agency.” That would count, not just as a restoration of the original American system of separation of powers, but even more remarkably as the executive branch reining in its own powers. A lot of us are deliriously happy about this and hope that President Trump will stick to it and succeed.
What makes us worried is that beneath this is a theory, economic nationalism, that is opposite from that of limited government. And our worry is that Trump will be just as willing to use economic nationalism as an excuse to exercise illegitimate executive power in areas like employment and international trade where he thinks the economy needs to be subordinated to government.
Because Ronald Reagan was right: we are a nation with a government, not the other way around.