Monday, December 26, 2011

Politics:  Modernizing Conservatism

By allowing their well-reasoned and often well-founded critiques of government action to metastasize into a categorical rejection of all prospective government action, while continuing to deny the basic political economy of the welfare state, conservatives increasingly find themselves in an ideological and practical straightjacket. Where conservatives have succeeded in cutting government, they have done so by taking an indiscriminate fire ax to non-defense discretionary spending. Meanwhile, they have had virtually no success at all in cutting middle-class entitlements, which represent the lion's share of federal spending and continue their unrestrained growth. This kind of conservatism would be unrecognizable to, for example, Calvin Coolidge, a current sentimental conservative favorite who favored minimum wage laws and child labor regulations, or even to Reagan, who favored large-scale government science research beyond just missile defense.
Consent does not require surrender. Liberals and conservatives do not agree about the principle of equality in American life and probably never will. Conservatives emphasize equal opportunity while accepting or even celebrating unequal outcomes. Conservatives see nothing inherently unjust about large disparities in the distribution of income or wealth, and also offer practical reasons why unequal rewards make for a more dynamic, creative, and ultimately wealthier society. Liberals strongly prefer more equal results, with many viewing disparities in income or wealth as random (Richard Gephardt once referred to the structure of America's wealth and income distribution as a "lottery"), and, as a result, favor egalitarian policies and entitlement programs.

Even so, most liberals are not pure redistributionists, and generally support policies that broaden opportunity for individual advancement, while few conservatives are entirely indifferent to the importance of income mobility and social opportunity. Liberal policies to advance individual opportunity tend to emphasize education, along with some job training efforts, to mixed effect. Meanwhile conservatives have tended to favor using the tax code to bring about rising incomes indirectly through higher rewards for capital investment in work effort. This much derided "trickle-down" approach has some evidence in its favor (for example, research showing the effect high corporate tax rates have on wage levels and wage growth). But even without settling that argument it can be noted that the supply-side string has been fully played out. Honest observers on the Right acknowledge the stagnation of middle-class incomes (though disagreeing on the causes).

I have written this paper in the hopes that my fellow conservatives will recognize the need for a conservative reformation, and I believe that liberals must follow suit.

For much more, see Modernizing Conservatism by Steven F. Hayward, Fall, 2011 at Breakthrough Journal.

No comments: