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American Conservatism’s Crisis of Ideas

BERKELEY – On the back left corner of my desk right now are three recent books: Arthur Brooks’ The Battle, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, and Nicholas Eberstadt’s A Nation of Takers. Together, they constitute an important intellectual movement, which also happens to be a large part of the reason that American conservatism today has little that is constructive to say about managing the economy – and little purchase on the center of the American electorate.

But let’s back up historically, to the founding of what we might call modern conservatism in early nineteenth-century Britain and France. There were some – Frédéric Bastiat and Jean-Baptiste Say come to mind – who believed that government should put the unemployed to work building infrastructure when markets or production were temporarily disrupted. But they were balanced by those like Nassau Senior, who spoke out against even famine relief: Although a million people would die in the Irish Potato Famine, “that would scarcely be enough.”

The main thrust of early conservatism was root-and-branch opposition to every form of social insurance: make the poor richer, and they would become more fertile. As a result, farm sizes would drop (as land was divided among ever more children), labor productivity would fall, and the poor would become even poorer. Social insurance was not just pointless; it was counterproductive.

The proper economic policy was to teach people to venerate the throne (so that they would respect property), the paternal hearth (so that they would not marry imprudently young), and the religious altar (so that they would fear pre-marital sex). Then, perhaps, with women chaste for half or more of their childbearing years, the surplus population would diminish and conditions for the poor would be as good as they could be.

Fast-forward 150 years to post-World War II America, and to the original Chicago School critique of the New Deal version of social insurance – that it created “notches” that perverted economic incentives. The government, Milton Friedman and others argued, told the poor: make more money and we will take away your free housing, food stamps, and income support. People are rational, Friedman said, so they will not work for long if they get nothing or next to nothing for it.

The big difference between the Malthusian conservative critics of social insurance in the early nineteenth century and the Chicago critics of the 1970’s is that the Chicago critics had a point: Providing public support to the “worthy” poor, and then removing it when they began to stand on their own feet, poisoned incentives and was unlikely to lead to good outcomes.

And so, from 1970 to 2000, a broad coalition of conservatives (who wanted to see the government stop encouraging immorality), centrists (who wanted government money spent effectively), and leftists (who wanted poverty alleviated) removed the “notches” from the social-insurance system. Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and even George W. Bush and their supporters created the current system, in which tax rates and eligibility thresholds are not punitive disincentives to enterprise.

So what is the problem that America’s new generation of conservative critics of social insurance sees? It is not that raising poor people’s standard of living above bare subsistence produces Malthusian catastrophe, or that taxes and withdrawal of welfare benefits make people work, at the margin, for nothing.

For Eberstadt, the problem is that dependence on government is emasculating, and that too many people are dependent on government. For Brooks, it is that knowing that public programs make one’s life easier causes one to vote for non-Republican candidates. For Murray, it is that social insurance means that behaving badly does not lead to catastrophe – and we need bad behavior to lead to catastrophe in order to keep people from behaving badly.

The crucial point is that America’s conservative elites believe Brooks, Eberstadt, and Murray. To this day, Mitt Romney is convinced that he lost the presidency in 2012 because Barack Obama unfairly gave Latino-Americans subsidized health insurance; gave women free reproductive health coverage (excluding abortion); and gave other groups similar “gifts.” He could “never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

In fact, it would be a tough sell for any candidate to convince Americans who receive government benefits that they are dependent rather than empowered; that it is bad for people to vote for politicians who make their lives better; and that good public policy seeks to create human catastrophe rather than to avert it. The problem for American conservatives is not their choice of candidates or the tone of their rhetoric. It is that their ideas are not politically sustainable.