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The Restorationist Dilemma

Jason Sorens

A common definition holds that conservatism is about turning back the clock. That’s not always accurate, but it does describe the goal of some conservatives. In a recent piece for The New Criterion, Daniel McCarthy sympathetically reconstructs the political logic of what he calls “restorationism”: the economic and religious nationalist turn in conservatism. Restorationists, he says, want to return to “the industrial economy and a Christian culture.” While restorationists might cite different golden ages (some extending back centuries), the most plausible version of their goal could look something like America around the middle of the 20th century.

McCarthy is pessimistic that such a return is possible, acknowledging that tariffs are “unlikely to restart the process of industrialization”. But he believes that restoration is worth trying, as the only viable alternative to nihilism, accomodationism, and “withdrawalism.” As a matter of explanation, McCarthy is probably right that behind most economic nationalism on the right today is nostalgia for an imagined America of humble farmers and factory workers, deeply religious, socially immobile, and skeptical of progressive elites.

How is this to be achieved today? Advocates of restoration hope to restore “the industrial economy and a Christian culture” through a combination of tariff hikes, more government support for private sector labor unions, and, above all, industrial policy aimed at picking winners and losers in the American economy.

Using economic intervention for cultural change might work in theory. The problem is that such policies would distort the American economy so heavily as to incur massive economic losses leading to civilizational decline. There’s no reason to think that even sympathetic voters would be willing to accept that degree of pain and disruption. Contra the restorationists, then, the only realistic way to effect conservative cultural change is through cultural, not economic means.

Here, then, is the restorationist dilemma. If they want to use economic policy for social engineering (or “reconstruction”), they will need to incur a depression the likes of which we have never endured before. If they want, by contrast, to maximize the economic health and strength of the nation, they will need to let economic progress run, with unpredictable social consequences. The tepid half-measures proposed by the likes of Josh Hawley, J.D.Vance, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and so on won’t observably change the direction of the U.S. economy or society: they will simply throw some sand in the gears of changes that are occurring almost everywhere in the developed world.

Think about the industries likely to drive American progress in the future: information technology, biotech, and advanced manufacturing in fields like plastics, nanotech, lasers, and microchips. Some of these industries are indeed bastions of the “new class” of highly educated cultural progressives. Are mere tariffs and new union rules likely to destroy these industries? No, they will merely retard their growth. Will they turn back the clock to steel, autos, wheat, and coal as our major growth industries? Not a chance.

To put the point in perspective, consider that according to Dartmouth economist Douglas Irwin, even the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 resulted in a deadweight loss of less than 0.3% of GDP. (Deadweight loss is the economic term for social waste; it’s wealth that is destroyed rather than paid out to someone. Deadweight loss is larger the greater the “distortion” to competitive market outcomes.) In essence, American consumers just ponied up for the higher prices; the tariff did not itself substantially change patterns of domestic production.

To go back to a tariff that substantially distorted the U.S. economy, you’d have to look at the Tariff of Abominations of 1828, which may have incurred deadweight loss of 2.5% of GDP. To redirect the American economy altogether, we’d need deadweight losses even greater than that. Such policies would impose a huge economic cost on average Americans.

Paradoxically, then, restorationists have to root for policies that are economically destructive. Remember: the goal isn’t just to help out a particular industry or region, but to restore a pre-Information Age economy and culture. There’s no simply no way to do that without destroying a vast amount of existing wealth that’s invested in current enterprises.

To be fair, advocates of reindustrialization don’t go to this length. But that’s exactly why their more modest proposals won’t work. Moderately protective tariffs might not help promote manufacturing employment at all. Advanced manufacturing uses many imported inputs, which were hit by the 2018–2019 tariffs. Several studies find that these tariffs caused a net decrease in manufacturing employment. And even if manufacturing jobs did increase, there’s no scenario where they get anywhere near the roughly 25% of the labor force that industry employed in the middle of the 20th century.

Directed government investment won’t help with social restoration either, because the only economically sustainable forms of such investment have unpredictable social effects. Import-substituting industrialization didn’t turn Argentina or Turkey into success stories in the 1950s or 1960s. And even admirers of East Asian “state-led development” admit that its success required a pro-trade, exporting orientation combined with domestic labor suppression. The most recent survey of U.S. industrial policy since 1970, published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, finds that picking winners and losers generally doesn’t succeed.

The clearest successes have come in research and development, such as Operation Warp Speed. But R&D investment, when it succeeds, accelerates economic progress and concomitant social dislocations. Visions of a high-tech, jet-pack future simply don’t fit with the dream of restoring traditional order.

To fundamentally reorient the U.S. economy away from services to basic manufacturing, the federal government would need to take drastic measures to suppress industries at the technological frontier like artificial intelligence and biotechnology. Banning all foreign trade and levying punitive taxes on research and development might suffice, yet it would destroy our standard of living and weaken the U.S. internationally. It might be the biggest civilizational own goal since the Ming Dynasty demolished its treasure fleet.

It’s also never going to happen. Restorationist conservatism in power could look instead like a retread of the George W. Bush administration: more money for religious-affiliated service delivery and abstinence education, nomination of pro-life judges, subsidies and tariffs for declining industries, populist mortgage finance policies, corporate bailouts, and an ever-expanding regulatory state that serves the needs of organized lobbies. People can argue about the wisdom of such policies. But nothing on this list augurs widespread cultural restoration.

If conservatives want to boost employment in conservative-leaning industries like construction, mining, and manufacturing, their best bet is a libertarian approach: defunding four-year universities so that more young people go into skilled trades, cutting corporate income taxes (research shows a strong effect on manufacturing employment), liberalizing housing and energy markets, and rolling back barriers to small business formation, like licensing laws. Restoring growth would have many salutary effects. Yet these policies also push the technological frontier outward. And there is no guarantee that they will promote religiosity or traditional gender norms.

In short, a moderate restorationist agenda that simply tries to slow the decline of industrial employment isn’t going to revive the social bases of conservatism, if you think that mass Christianity plus mass industrial employment is what’s needed. And the costs of radical restorationism are far too high.

But McCarthy may be too pessimistic that conservatism’s future requires a massive revival of Christianity and increasing birth rates. Conservatism has been hegemonic in Japan for decades without Christianity or high fertility. To be sure, boosting fertility may be desirable for its own sake, but how to do it is a tricky issue. And Christianity might or might not be true, but it’s unclear that a virtuous, responsible citizenry is incompatible with secularism.

The crisis in conservatism is difficult to diagnose and to solve. In some ways Americans are more conservative than ever. We are less likely to move than ever. Part of the reason for fertility’s decline is a collapse in teen pregnancy. The American work ethic remains strong. Young people are drinking and smoking less than ever. Yet there are undeniable dark clouds in the form of growing mental illness, gender dysphoria, and drug addiction. Would a dirigiste economic policy help any of this? It’s hard to see how.

It’s not even politically popular. There is no evidence that Americans in general are turning against trade or economic progress. Working-class whites moved toward the GOP at the same time that the party remained the most free-market and anti-redistributionist major party in the industrialized world. Republicans did indeed turn sharply against international trade immediately after Donald Trump’s nomination in 2016. That fact suggests that for all the theorizing of the intellectuals, the restorationist agenda has its origins not in a change in the social and economic circumstances of the country but in a single event: Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. (That partisans largely take their issue positions from elite cues is well-known.)

If trying to make industry account for the lion’s share of U.S. employment won’t ease social ills, what will? Apart from the policies mentioned above, governments could do more to improve schooling and incentivize responsibility. But the most durable, effective solutions lie outside public policy.

Political intellectuals often assume that the only way to shift social trends is to pull on some policy lever. But why have teen pregnancy, drinking, and smoking gone down? Because of elite-led cultural change and educational campaigns. Why assume that the same strategy cannot work to encourage marriage, boost fertility, discourage harmful drug use, and encourage young men to enter the workforce? Human beings are adaptable and willing, sometimes all too willing, to change their lives according to whatever the latest research suggests is good for their flourishing.

We shouldn’t be afraid to publicize the results of findings on how marriage leads to happiness and how growing up in a two-parent family helps your kids succeed. The most informed and most self-disciplined Americans will implement and communicate these norms first, but they will filter down to the rest of society through emulation of the “prestige culture.” After all, this is how social liberalism won in the first place: elites changed their ideas about sex, marriage, and drugs, even if not their habits, and a couple of decades later, the bottom fell out of the working class.

The restorationists won’t be able to turn back the clock on economic progress; the American voter will stop them if they try. Industrial policy won’t restore the cultural basis of cross-class conservatism either. At best, it will make jobs for a new crop of lawyers and lobbyists. The American economy and society will continue to evolve in unpredictable ways. The only question is how to manage those changes, not whether to allow them to happen in the first place.

Jason Sorens is a senior research faculty member at AIER.

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