One of the many signs of a rudderless “conservative” political wing is the abandonment of long-held tenets regarding the nature and role of government. Indeed, there is a robust line of thought back to the 18C (17C?) which includes Paine, Jefferson, Burke, and of course, Locke, who argued that government should be limited in scope and purpose lest it unnecessarily intrude on the lives and liberties of the people. Indeed, the very rejection of absolutist monarchies and the erection of states subject to controls/rule of law/separation of powers was to ensure that those states could not unduly trample on individual liberties. While this is pretty well established across our political culture, there has been some divergence since the middle of the 19C, with some (now associated with the “left”) advocating a larger role for government in actively promoting/enabling those individual liberties.; thus, the common (if awkward) label “liberals”. On the other hand, in modern American political parlance, at least since the early 20C, the Republican Party has stood in this tradition and associated itself with the free conduct of business and personal living. The recent trend among GOP’ers to attack private businesses for espousing certain political positions thus raises a raft of interesting questions.
Over the past few decades, those on the “left,” have pressured businesses (especially large corporations) to become more Environmentally-aware, Socially-responsible, and more transparent and open in their Governance, i.e., “ESG.” I’m not to get into the question of whether this is a wise or morally-beneficial approach (nor whether it has been unaccompanied by some degree of hypocrisy), but the ESG movement has gained some traction, especially among companies with a high public profile. This has manifested in companies being far more aggressive than what was expected of them 50 years ago in terms of espousing diversity/inclusion and prevention/condemnation of discrimination. We can see this in individual corporate policies, duly posted on web sites, statements of CEOs, and even boycotts of offending companies and states with antipathetic policies.
That such public positions have garnered vocal opposition is not surprising. There is a significant minority (at least) in this country who actively reject such “progressive” stances. Nonetheless,
it seems strange for public officials who proclaim their devotion to private sector freedom to seek to regulate and punish companies for exercising their own freedom to choose who to do business with. There is, to put it mildly, some tension between a pro-liberty position and one in which governmental power is harnessed to limit liberty in the name of certain moral views. It calls into question whether these self-proclaimed inheritors of Burke et al. are really part of the conservative (i.e. classical “liberal”) tradition? After all, what exactly is the governmental problem with a private citizen/corporation announcing that it will, e.g., accommodate transgender persons as employees? Why should elected officials (especially of the De Santis/Hawley/Cruz tendency) decry such expressions of liberty?
It’s the flip side of those on the left who have sought to use legal tools to impose their morality on the private sector generally. To read the progressive critiques of recent supreme court cases concerning religious freedom not to do business with or to “speak” on behalf of those with whom the business might have moral’/religious objection (e.g. developing a web site for a gay couple’s wedding) some liberty is OK, but other flavors are not. Ditto for complaints about Madison Square Garden using facial recognition software to screen its patrons. (Let me reiterate that I am not talking about the pros and cons of such policies per se, but rather whether they should be the subject of governmental pressure/constraint.)
Another curious angle is raised by Elon Musk’s efforts to determine who publishes on Twitter. We will leave to the side his business acumen in this regard. However, Musk/Twitter is a publisher, not too different from Murdoch and Fox, Col. McCormick and the Chicago Tribune (in an earlier age), or Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post. It’s pretty amusing (and a bit bewildering) to see folks accusing Musk of trampling their “First Amendment” rights. Last time I looked, the 1A regulates what government does; it doesn’t regulate the private sector. Its purpose was to ensure publishers have the freedom to publish what they wanted; not to force them (Musk, Bezos et al.) to publish (or not) something they didn’t want to. Stated differently, I (and other private individuals) have rights vis-à-vis the government, but not vis-à-vis publishers. So, if Musk wants to bar me from Twitter (crocodile tears here), he can and I’ll have to use Mastodon or some other social media platform (or start my own (like Trump’s “Truth Social” channel). It’s hard to hear progressives endorse Musk’s 1A rights only insofar as he keeps Trump out of the twittersphere; just as those on the right want to investigate Bezos or other tech moguls who allegedly skew their platforms to the left.
All of this leads me to conclude that traditional liberal stream of thought is pretty much finis. (Of course there is a pretty good argument that (given the rather skewed religious, gender, and racial configurations of power in Western cultures in the 17-20Cs) this line of argument was always more about power than liberty anyway.) In the classic framing of the history of political philosophy, the argument was nominally about the power of the state versus the rights of the individual, but perhaps was really about the preservation/promotion of power and recruiting the state as the enforcer of certain moral positions and mentalities. These days, this argument shows up in more convoluted ways, but neither left nor right has a monopoly on intellectual contortion.