Trump and Sanders Are Both Conservatives

Steven Horwitz

Those of us who reject the conventional left-right political spectrum often see things that those working within it cannot. For example, in “Why the Candidates Keep Giving Us Reasons to Use the ‘F’ Word” (Freeman, Winter 2015), I argue that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, seen by many as occupying opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, both embrace the thinking of economic nationalism, if not fascism.

They also share a different political tradition. It may seem to contradict their shared fascist pedigree, but Trump and Sanders are both, in a meaningful sense, conservatives.

"The conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes." — F.A. Hayek

Trump, of course, has been lambasted by many self-described conservatives precisely because they believe he is not a conservative. And Sanders, the self-described “democratic socialist,” hardly fits our usual conception of a conservative. What exactly am I arguing, then?

They are both conservatives from the perspective of classical liberalism. More specifically, they are conservatives in the sense that F.A. Hayek used the term in 1960 when he wrote the postscript to The Constitution of Liberty titled “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” There he said of conservatives,

They typically lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavors will emerge.… This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces.… The conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules.

That description would seem to apply to both Trump and Sanders. They share a fear of uncontrolled and undesigned change, especially in the economy. This is most obvious in Trump’s bluster about how America never “wins” and his desire to raise tariffs on Chinese imports and close the flow of immigrants, especially from Mexico. Economic globalization is a terrific example of uncontrolled change, and using foreign workers and producers as scapegoats for that change — especially when those changes have largely benefited most Americans — is a good example of this fear of the uncontrolled.

Those policies also show the much-discussed economic ignorance of Trump and his supporters, as shutting off trade and migration would impoverish the very people Trump claims to care about — those who are, in fact, supporting him. International trade and the free migration of labor drive down costs and leave US consumers with more money in their pockets with which to buy new and different goods. They also improve living standards for our trade partners, but Trump and his followers wrongly perceive their gains as necessitating American losses.

The same concerns are echoed in Sanders’s criticisms of free trade and in his claim that immigration is undermining good jobs for the native-born. Trump’s rhetoric might be more about how the US needs to “beat” the Chinese, and Sanders might focus more on the effects on working class Americans, especially union workers, but both fear the uncontrolled change of globalized markets, seeing commerce as a zero-sum game. (See “Why Trump and Sanders See Losers Everywhere,” FEE.org, January 20, 2016.)

For Sanders, fear of change also bubbles up in his criticisms of Uber — even though he uses the service all the time. Part of Hayek’s description was the fear of change producing “new tools of human endeavor.” The new economy emerging from the reduction of transaction costs will continue to threaten labor unions and the old economic understanding of employment and the firm. Sanders’s view of the economy is very much a conservative one as he tries to save the institutions of an economy that no longer exists because it no longer best serves human wants.

In addition, both Trump and Sanders are more than willing to use coercion and arbitrary power to attempt to resist that change. These similarities manifest in different ways, as Trump sees himself as the CEO of America, bossing people and moving resources around as if it were one of his own (frequently bankrupt) companies. CEOs are not bound by constitutional constraints and are used to issuing orders to all who they oversee. This is clearly Trump’s perspective, and many of his followers apparently see him as Hayek’s “decent man” who should not be too constrained by rules.

"The liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead." — F.A. Hayek

The same is true of Sanders, though he and his supporters would deny it. One need only consider his more extreme taxation proposals as well as the trillions in new spending he would authorize to see that he will also not be bound by constraints and will happily use coercion to achieve his ends. This is also clear in his policies on trade and immigration, which, like Trump’s, would require a large and intrusive bureaucracy to enforce. As we already know from current immigration restrictions, such bureaucracies are nothing if not arbitrary and coercive. Both Trump and Sanders believe that with the right people in charge, there’s no need for rule-based constraints on political power.

Hayek also said of conservatives that they are characterized by a

hostility to internationalism and [a] proneness to a strident nationalism.… [It is] this nationalistic bias which frequently provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism: to think in terms of “our” industry or resource is only a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest.

As noted, Sanders and Trump share exactly this hostility and proneness. And despite being seen as political opposites, their distinct views converge in the idea that resources are “ours” as a nation and that it is the president’s job (and the state’s more generally) to direct them in the national interest. For Trump, that interest is “making America great again” and making sure we “beat” the Chinese. For Sanders, that interest is the attempt to protect “the working class” against the predation of two different enemies: the 1 percent and foreign firms and workers, all of whom are destroying our industries and human resources.

All of this fear of uncontrolled change and economic nationalism is in sharp contrast with the position of what Hayek calls “liberalism” or what we might call “classical liberalism” or “libertarianism.” In that same essay, Hayek said of classical liberalism, “The liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.”

Both Trump and Sanders believe that with the right people in charge, there’s no need for rule-based constraints on political power.

This is why classical liberalism rejects the idea that the path toward progress entails electing the right people (the “decent men”) and the cult of personality that frequently accompanies that idea, as we’ve seen with Trump and Sanders. Classical liberalism understands how, under the right rules and institutions, progress for all is the unintended outcome of allowing each to pursue their own values and ends with an equal respect for others to do the same, regardless of which side of an artificial political boundary they reside on.

If we want to live in peace, prosperity, and cooperation, we need to recognize that progress is a product of unpredictable, uncontrolled, and uncontrollable change.

Trump and Sanders can stand on their porches telling us to get off their lawn, but we’re going to do it in an Uber imported from Asia and driven by a nonunionized immigrant, because we classical liberals welcome the change they fear.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.