The new libertarian screed Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class is old wine in new bottles. These tired “conservative” ideas about destroying the “welfare state” have been repackaged in a flashy, colorful brochure, which often places white text against dark-colored backgrounds. This attempt to give the document a modern, cutting-edge look only makes it more difficult to read. However, it is not just the layout that makes it hard reading. The essays themselves are thin intellectual and policy gruel. They will be a difficult read for anyone with a patina of faith in the power of democratic government—which I suspect is most of those the writers refer to as “middle class.”
The opening essay by Yuval Levin sets the stage for all the other essays, which adhere—more or less—to the notion that there is a sacrosanct “space between the individual and the state,” a space that should never be violated by the government. The conservative, according to these essayists, is someone who believes in the “space between,” a private space where there exists a “constructive tension between moral traditionalism and economic individualism,” and that when the government interlopes in that space it yields bad results.
Levin then goes on to build a straw man argument, first conflating the Left, Progressives, and Liberals into one monolithic group, and then hyperbolically accusing them all of one great cabal: trying to institute a government that “organizes” all interactions between individuals in society. In other words, the chief goal of liberal, Progressive, and Left politics is the complete destruction of that “space between.”
Each of the subsequent essays is devoted to a particular topic, but they are just variations on Levin’s central thesis that the “space between” needs to be left alone by the state. There is some overlap in all the essays and quite a bit of repetition. In light of what we already know about conservative approaches to government, especially in the form of Representative Paul Ryan’s budget recommendations, it is no surprise what each of these folks suggest.
Of course, healthcare must rid itself of the anti-market approach of the Affordable Care Act, although what James Capretti suggests sounds more like ACA-Lite rather than true market reform. The zinger is the block-granting and/or voucherizing of Medicaid, which would essentially destroy the program through underfunding. Right now, this program is mandated to cover each individual enrolled in the program; it is guaranteed health care for the poorest among us. A voucher system would force a portion of the insurance cost on the poor, virtually ensuring that the poor would not be able to make use of the vouchers because they would lack matching private funds.
Social Security and Medicare
Robert Stein suggests the puzzling notion that Social Security and Medicare taxes are “disincentivizing” population growth. This fits into the notion of the “space between” because Mr. Stein believes that those who choose to have more children will not need welfare programs (i.e., Social Security and Medicare) in old age. Their children will take care of them. So, the Social Security and Medicare payments taken out of our paychecks today not only reduce our incentive to breed they make it less likely that we will be taken care of by our children in old age. By this logic, bringing jobs to the poorest neighborhoods in America should dramatically reduce the birth rate and thus solve the problem of poverty in America. If it was only that easy!
When it comes to education Frederick Hess and Andrew Kelly seem to think online courses will allow us to dramatically reduce the cost of K-12 and college. However, the most important thing to do is get the federal government out of education, especially when it comes to establishing common standards—what is today called Common Core Curriculum. Of course, no conservative reform of education would be complete without the destruction of teachers’ unions, those corrupt, decrepit organizations that ensure one’s employment regardless of performance. The animus toward teachers’ unions is interesting in light of Hess’s comment that “teachers are whiplashed by inconstant school-board governance….” If unions do not protect teachers from the arbitrary power of school boards and administrators, who will? The state? By the way, why is a union not considered a member of that “space between”?
Ending Welfare “As We Know It”
The most direct assault on the welfare state—at least the part that deals directly with the poor—is Scott Winship’s essay on “welfare reform.” What Winship argues is that people who do not work do so because they do not want to, and the best way to incentivize them to work is hunger pangs. In short, the goal of any welfare reform should be the reform of the lazy. This begins with eliminating any incentive for childbirth outside of marriage. Of course, we must not stop there. We must make sure that severe hunger and want drives people to see the advantages of work and industry. This view is so absurd it is difficult to know where to begin. It is difficult to understand how a modern, thinking individual could believe that the mere desire for a job itself creates jobs or generates the capital to start one’s own business. While reading Mr. Winship’s essay I was reminded of that passage in the New Testament book of James where the believer sends away the hungry man saying, “Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled….” (James 2:16) Of course, conservatives prefer quoting the pseudo-Pauline letter to the Thessalonians: “If any will not work, neither let him eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)
The essay following Winship’s may have been an attempt to answer the question, “Okay then, how do we get people employed?” If you read this essay hoping for a good answer you will be sadly disappointed, because Michael Strain suggests three things that are all of dubious efficacy. First, he opines that we need more “men” in the workforce—a refrain heard again in a later essay on family. Apparently, nature has determined that women—maybe because of their gestational abilities—can never be a primary breadwinner. The second thing Strain suggests is that we give businesses incentives to hire people by subsidizing the minimum wage. This is an intellectually, politically, and economically disturbing suggestion. For example, it suggests that employers have jobs available now but are not willing to pay minimum wage. What job today is worth less than minimum wage, and why would an employer want to hire someone unless he/she needs them to meet the demands of their business? Also, doesn’t this whole idea violate the conservative notion of messing around with the “space between”? Wouldn’t it be more consistent for Mr. Strain to argue for the complete elimination of minimum wage? Finally, Mr. Strain drags out the trope about how too many people are getting on SSDI (Social Security Disability Income). This is a very murky topic, much like the accusations of rampant welfare and voter fraud. There will always be individuals who attempt to game the system, but there is no compelling evidence for us to believe that there is widespread SSDI fraud. Those on this program have to go through a multi-year process of evaluation and a majority of initial claims are rejected out of hat. However, this does not matter to the conservative. If we simply force people to be completely dependent on themselves, and the “space between,” they will somehow learn to cope, regardless of circumstance.
Adam White and James Pethokoukis, respectively, wrote essays on energy and regulation. Both argue the same central point, that less government regulation of industry will lead to more economic growth and innovation. However, Pethokoukis does almost address a very real problem with the globalized economy. He talks in a few paragraphs about “process innovation,” which gives a natural advantage to those who have already achieved an economy of scale. (I thought for a minute he would mention Jeremy Rifkin and the idea of a zero-growth economy. He does not.) In short, “process innovation” is productivity through better processes like information technology rather than through real technological development like a physical and patentable product. In the end, Pethokoukis suggests that getting government out of the way will return us to that glorious age of a “Darwinian struggle for market share and profits.” Of course, one must wonder how this will be achieved if the world’s top 500 companies already control one-third of all business activity on the planet. These companies would seem to have every advantage to grow their market share at the expense of all others, unless a countervailing force develops to challenge them, and these companies do not use their sway over government to destroy the competition.
Marriage, the Panacea
The final two topical essays in this conservative pamphlet argue essentially the same thing: marriage, marriage, marriage! There is apparently no problem in society that can’t be solved by a simple return to the traditional family where grandparents take care of children while parents work, or where the woman stays home. Remember I said that I would come back to the topic of not having enough “men” in the workforce? Well, here we are again.
Carrie Lukas’s proposals are a little confusing. She argues that the government should encourage people to leave their kids with family instead of a daycare facility. She seems to be saying that family members cannot be convinced to do this without an economic incentive, or is she suggesting that we remove people from the workforce to take care of a family member’s kids while we are at work? She even implies that companies have a right to discriminate against women because of that pesky old habit they have of wanting children.
W. Bradford Wilcox agrees with Lukas that marriage is the key, and that our first step in restoring marriage is destroying the welfare system, which has “made single parenthood more affordable or acceptable.” That is why we need to get rid of the ACA, Medicaid, and all the other programs that make single life with children somewhat bearable for those without an upper middle class income. Wilcox argues that marriage is a profound and fundamental institution of the “space between” because it offsets the disaffection that is inherent in individual liberty, a proposition that might be true but that does not necessarily argue for the destruction of the welfare state. In fact, this final sentiment appears to place individual disaffection within our political system rather than within our economic system.
As I will point out below, this final comment by Wilcox exemplifies the recurrent disdain these writers seem to have for democratic government, the type of government that takes a wider view of its role beyond merely ensuring law and order. This view is that one of the roles of government is the balancing of interests, but not just the interests of individuals and groups. It is often about balancing the interests of individuals and groups against the interest of the “common good.” However, for government to serve this role of arbitration you must have a properly functioning democracy with a certain expectation that compromise will be the order of the day when it comes to most issues.
Ramesh Ponnuru bats cleanup in this little conservative project. What can one say about a man who seems thoughtful but holds such unthoughtful ideas? It is probably best summed up in Ponnuru’s own words. He writes, “The point is not to keep the Constitution in tune with the times; it is to keep the times in tune with the Constitution.”
In this short sentence is summarized both the philosophy and the intrinsic problem with modern American conservative thought. It reminds one of the orthodox religious believer who claimed that he did not have to look through Galileo’s telescope because the Church had already determined that it is the sun and all the planets that revolve around the earth, not the other way around. Now, these “conservative” folk would never suggest that slavery be reinstituted or that women be stripped of the right to vote, yet logically this is what they are arguing for: that the interpretation of that document we call the Constitution should never change. This, of course, ignores the dramatic changes that have already occurred and become part of the common law, and it shows the conservative discomfort with those changes. This gets to the fundamental question: what exactly do these folks want to “conserve.” If they want to conserve that “space between” one could just as easily make a compelling case for government rather than against it. After all, a democracy—even a “representative democracy”—should represent the general will of the people, better known as those who occupy that “space between.”
It is clear that the anti-government orientation of modern “conservatives” represents not only the fear of an overreaching state but a clear disdain for the idea of democratic government. One piece of evidence in support of this view is the near fetishistic obsession with in-person voter fraud, which time and again has been shown to be almost non-existent. However, it is very helpful in striking Democrat-leaning voters from the election rolls. One could also point to the Republican and conservative tendency to delegitimize elections that do not go their way, a tendency not unknown among Democrats but not nearly as frequent.
Beyond a defense of the “space between” the essayists of this pamphlet have written, allegedly, in defense of the middle class, which they define as those making up to $100,000 a year. This is clearly a naked attempt to pander to a group of the electorate that Republicans desperately need in order to again gain power at the federal level. It is curious, though, that a third of the way through the document I noticed that the word “democracy” had not been used once. I then did a word search in the PDF and could not find “democracy” at all. The word “voter” and “voting” occur a total of fifteen times but mostly to register discontent about past elections. “Electorate” and “election” occur a combined total of twice, but not as positives, merely terms of description. Finally, the word “democratic” occurs a total of seven times, all but one of them used to describe the Democratic Party. It’s enough to make one wonder, how can these conservatives effect all this radical change without elections? Reading between the lines, these folks seem to think the electorate is already on their side and that illegitimate election victories by Democrats is the only thing that stands in the way of conservatives doing the true will of the people.
Throughout the essays reference is made to the middle class, but these references read like awkward literary grafts. The alleged conservative sympathy for the working classes is canned, and belied by the fact that all the essays support the destruction of programs that ultimately benefit the middle class. From food assistance to job training to education, nothing escapes the parsimonious eye of these defenders of the “space between.”
While reading these essays I was reminded of the refrain that Cato is alleged to have given after every speech, and no matter what the subject: Carthago delenda est! Roughly translated this means “Carthage must be destroyed!” These conservatives, no matter what the topic, always end with the same message: government must be destroyed! This generalization may be a little unfair since they do claim to believe in “limited” government, but they spend so much of their time fighting the bogeyman of the Left that we never get a clear picture of what a conservative society would look like. We are left to envision some type of feudal society where power is concentrated regionally and locally. No doubt, it would be only a matter of time before prima noctae was reinstituted.
Michael Strain’s essay argues for reducing the training time for some types of employment. He argues—without evidence—that this will somehow benefit the middle class. His main idea to grow the middle class comes down to making it easier for people to get licensed as hairdressers. Hey, I’m not against more hairdressers, but do we really think reducing the training regimen from 300 days to thirty will revolutionize our economy and make the state superfluous? Ironically, it is mostly men suggesting this idea, apparently unaware of the caustic chemicals that cosmetologists use every day while doing their jobs.
The modern conservative agenda can be crudely boiled down to the following proposition: government, outside a few Hobbesian roles, should not exist. In short, the government should be strong enough to stop us from killing each other and that is it. The disdain for representative and active government is palpable throughout this pamphlet. We also see it exhibited every day by rightwing news organizations like Fox and Drudge.
“The government” is portrayed by these so-called conservatives as a foreign entity over which we have no control. It not only interferes with our way of life but is actively out to destroy that way of life. However, if we all just get married (i.e., heterosexually married) and get government off our backs we would arrive at that utopian “space between,” where every acceptable desire is satisfied and where society becomes once again part of the “great chain of being.”
Reading through this little manifesto one is struck by the naïveté running through it. It reads like an Ayn Rand novel. If only mankind, especially the maker class, could be freed from government oppression then things would improve. The idea that the “space between” should be almost completely divorced from the action of the state is on its face absurd. I suspect that if you got specific you would find that most of these writers would never argue for the type of extreme libertarianism they propose in their essays. I doubt if one-tenth of these writers would side with the religious parent denying medical treatment to a child because of their belief in miracles. The very idea that a hard line could ever be drawn to separate the “space between” from the state is simply wishful utopianism. These folks are no more practical than the Marxist who believes the state will wither away upon the inauguration of true Communism.
In the end, this high-strung libertarianism is not true conservatism; it is political atavism. The changes these folks and others have proposed are not forward looking. They are backward looking, and not in a good way. Modern American conservatives would have us return to a time when the great bulk of individuals were forced to negotiate with those who had everything, a time when there existed almost no external leverage for the worker: no regulations on the work environment, no union representation, no minimum wage requirements, no public grievance procedures, etc.
The ultimate goal of this so-called conservative agenda is not to place more power in the hands of the middle class but to strip them of what little power they now have and restore that power to the titans of industry, the true maker class. This “conservative” agenda, if implemented, would not allow the middle class to thrive; it would force millions more into that world where mere survival is an everyday experience. This might not have been a problem in an earlier age, when the mob could be given a nice whiff of grapeshot, but modern politics and moral sentiment would not allow the government, or those in the “space between,” to shoot down the poor and the homeless when their bellies make them unruly. It is for this reason, and others, that this extreme libertarian agenda will never be implemented, and that is a good thing.