Both major parties in American politics have a tendency to define themselves by their point of ascendancy. Just as for four decades the Democrats defined themselves by the policies of FDR and the New Deal, so too have Republicans defined themselves by the policies of the Reagan presidency.
The problem in both cases were that the policies pursued by those administrations were a direct response to conditions extant at the time. After several decades, they not only cease to be relevant, the dogmatic pursuit of those policies becomes a malignancy all by itself.
There have been times in American history when the rights of labor were not given their fair attention by government. The reaction to that imbalance, including the shoots of communism and socialism that sprouted during the Great Depression, brought forth the coalition between labor and the Democratic Party, a coalition that remained strong throughout most of the 20th century.
Likewise, a belief that the policy arc from FDR to Jimmy Carter had swung the pendulum too far against the interests of commerce led in no small part to the Reagan revolution. That fierce protection of the rights of business have carried the Republican Party for the past 30 years.
It is time, though, to re-assess the force of habit that has turned conservatives into the knee-jerk defenders of business. We have now, arguably, reached the point where business does not need to be defended against an ambivalent government, but where government needs to be defended against concentrations of money from both sides of the aisle that undermines government.
Conservatism stands for establishing the independence of business from undue meddling of government, and demands that enterprises be allowed to prosper without a shackle to social interests or public ownership. But that is a far cry from acquiescing to the capture of government power by business interests. And yet, we seem to feel obliged to leap to the defense of the power of commerce anytime it is attacked, going so far as to hold our tongues when enterprises are given direct influence in the outcome of elections.
Conservatism stands for the rights of business to operate freely, but not for the right of businesses or any other corporate organizations to act as political actors.
Conservatism stands for the protection of business from gratuitous action of government, insuring that private interests will not be unfairly subordinated to public will. But that does not mean subordinating the public interests to the profit of private enterprise. Conservatism is about recognizing the great value of business to national prosperity and happiness, but also acting against business when it operates in a manner that is destructive to society, undermines democracy, or inhibits individual liberty.
America thrives when there is a dynamic balance between the private interest and public good. That balance is not static, shifting as it does with the times. But we abandon the search for that balance at our peril. Just as allowing the public good to win over the private interest puts us on the road to socialism, allowing private interests to suborn the public good places us on the path to industrial feudalism.
A conservative should be equally galled by either.