SACRAMENTO — Conservatives used to be united in their understanding that free markets are the best way to ensure prosperity and freedom. Perhaps it’s outmoded — in a time when right-wing populists are promoting tariffs, complaining about capitalism, and supporting federal controls of the tech economy — to quote Ronald Reagan: “Only when the human spirit is allowed to invent and create, only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding economic policies and benefiting from their success — only then can societies remain economically alive, dynamic, prosperous, progressive and free.”

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand up against corporate subsidies, but the Right used to grasp Reagan’s point. As I noted in my Orange County Register column last week, too many Republicans are channeling their inner Bernie Sanders. U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is proposing a variety of new regulations. U.S Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) believes in a creepy re-ordering of the economy to reflect what he terms “common good capitalism.” (Guess who determines the common good?)

U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) has made headlines — and received favorable attention from left-leaning media outlets — for teaming up with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “in advancing bipartisan proposals that would penalize bank executives when their companies fail, make it harder for giant lenders to get bigger by acquiring other banks and rein in credit card fees,” according to Politico.

Many of these proposals are hatched in the New Right’s intellectual world. In 2000, the late paleo-conservative writer Sam Francis penned a loathsome piece titled “Capitalism the Enemy.” That used to be a fringe viewpoint, but it is now commonplace. In their zeal to turn the GOP into a working-class party, right-wing anti-market thinkers want to empower the feds to tinker in the nation’s economy.

Conservative writer Sohrab Ahmari, who runs a new populist website with a fellow religious conservative and a leftist, has published a new book complaining about “the domination of working- and middle-class people by the owners of capital, the asset-less by the asset-rich.” Ahmari and others on the right have basically given up on the concept of liberal democracy. Frustration at “woke” companies is driving the movement.

Now, the Left is doing what it always does — promoting vast governmental intrusions into the economy, targeting private companies it doesn’t like, and using its prosecutorial powers to harass industries that are vital to our economic health. Yet the Right no longer is in a position to stand up against these policies, given that it has ceded the high ground.

Republicans Turned Anti-Capitalist

Populist conservatives argue against the idea that the government ought to strive to be neutral. Instead, they want it to use its power to promote their cultural and moral vision. For those who share that vision (not me, by the way), that holds a certain appeal. Everyone likes to give their enemies a taste of their own medicine. But it only works if you’re in power. There’s the old libertarian saying that people ought never to support governmental policies until they consider what they will be like in the hands of their political enemies. It’s sound advice.

Here’s the latest news from Washington, D.C., per a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) statement:

The Federal Trade Commission and 17 state attorneys general today sued, Inc. alleging that the online retail and technology company is a monopolist that uses a set of interlocking anticompetitive and unfair strategies to illegally maintain its monopoly power. The FTC and its state partners say Amazon’s actions allow it to stop rivals and sellers from lowering prices, degrade quality for shoppers, overcharge sellers, stifle innovation, and prevent rivals from fairly competing against Amazon.

This is incredible overreach. For starters, Amazon is a private company that has provided innumerable benefits for American consumers. I’m constantly stunned by the ease of purchasing the items I often buy — clothing, motorcycle parts, books, furniture, etc. The process is easy. The selection seems nearly unlimited. Prices are great, and the stuff just shows up at your door. My wife loves having cat litter arrive at the stoop rather than having to venture to the store and lug it back. It was a godsend during the COVID stay-at-home unpleasantness.

The feds have developed an interesting take on the word “monopoly.” As the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s senior economist Ryan Young said in a statement (as quoted by Reason):

Amazon controls roughly 10 percent of total retail, and about 38 percent of online retail. For Amazon to look dominant, the FTC had to invent new terms such as the “online superstore market that serves shoppers” and the “online marketplace services purchased by sellers.” Even if Amazon monopolizes those specially-defined markets, the FTC will have a difficult time proving consumer harm.

It strikes me as yet another Biden administration misuse of government power to advance the union agenda. However, it would be much easier for Republicans to stand up against this if they hadn’t spent the last few years burnishing their populist credentials and promoting various anti-tech laws, some of which would have essentially allowed a government takeover (by treating social-media companies as common carriers or public utilities).

And the progressive attacks on companies are not limited to the tech sector. In California, Democratic Attorney General Rob Bonta recently filed a lawsuit against major oil companies alleging that they have hidden the impact of fossil-fuel production on the climate. Gov. Gavin Newsom — who may or may not be running for president — vowed to “hold big polluters accountable and deliver the justice our people deserve.” Apparently, “justice” will mean, as the Orange County Register opines, that Golden State consumers will pay even more than they already do for gasoline.

When it comes to basic resource issues, Republicans can be counted on to understand the abuse of power and counterproductive nature of such lawsuits, given that they will hobble an industry that remains fundamental to our economic growth and threatens tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of tax revenue in California alone. But the principle remains the same whether the government is targeting oil companies or online sellers.

Republicans need to stop this anti-capitalist nonsense and sound more like Reagan than Elizabeth Warren.