Michael Gerson lays out the contours of conservative reform in the Washington Post by contrasting it with the Democrats’ stale 75-year-old economic agenda and the Republicans’ stale 35-year-old economic agenda. The problem is, though there are plenty of interesting ideas being floated by very smart reformicons, Gerson’s case sounds a lot like a stale, 15-year-old “compassionate conservative” agenda.
Worse, actually. Because, according to Gerson at least, the movement is based on two flawed ideas. The first, he summed up like so: “Reform conservatism affirms that there is a crisis in modern capitalism.”
Modern capitalism is always the problem, isn’t it? As opposed to capitalism in 1936? Or capitalism in 1979? When, exactly, did America hit that sweet spot when free markets functioned flawlessly to produce guaranteed jobs and equitable results for all? Never, I imagine. The “crisis in capitalism” is as old as Marx; consisting of various myths that excuse reallocation of wealth in ways that please those who happen to be running things at that moment.
It’s not surprising that Republicans are looking for a populist agenda that might appeal to more middle-class voters – although, according to most polls, concern about inequality is vastly overrated as a political issue. What is surprising is Gerson’s progressive framing of the dilemma. Blaming free markets – markets that function in an environment that is already larded with cronyism, regulatory regimes, and distorted incentives – rather than an overbearing state has a distinctly un-conservative feel to it. As practicality goes, it seems like a counterintuitive way to try and win converts in a Republican Party that’s turned increasingly libertarian on economics.
While Gerson argues that his crisis of capitalism differs from Thomas Piketty’s crisis – one that sees diverging returns of labor and capital – it’s no more convincing. In essence, Gerson fears that new competitive pressures, technological advances, and productivity will leave millions behind.
This, too, sounds familiar:
One reason that American institutions are badly in need of modernization is to respond to new economic realities. Large, irreversible economic trends — particularly globalization and the technological revolution — have made it difficult for many Americans to find dignified work sufficient to supporting a family, particularly when they have limited skills and education.
Since humankind invented the first wheel, there have been large, irreversible economic trends and technological revolutions that cause unease among people. I imagine every generation believes its round of creative destruction is especially damaging. A few years back, Barack Obama similarly argued that America was experiencing “structural issues with our economy.” Many businesses had become more efficient. “You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM,” the president said, “you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.”
Technology always kills jobs. Technology always creates jobs. Institutions will modernize best through necessity and demand, not top-down directive. The intuitive position of those on the Right is that new jobs can be created through an entrepreneurship that thrives best when the state retreats and allows those competitive pressures that alarm Gerson to do their work.
Now, this movement is conservative in the most literal sense of the word, as it aims to preserve a set of institutions that reformists (and I) value. Such meddling, though, generally irritates the instincts of modern political “conservatives” for a very good reason: they’ve never seen it work. Probably because there is no historic precedent that tells them we can alleviate a crisis of capitalism by allowing technocrats to slather another layer of social engineering atop all the other layers of social engineering.
Here’s Shikha Dalmia laying out some of the most important questions:
Reform conservatives are trying to outbid liberals for the spoils of the welfare state, shifting dependence on the state from single moms and minorities (a liberal constituency) to parents and families (a conservative constituency). This may or may not be a workable vision. How conservatives will avoid the unintended consequences that have bedeviled the liberal welfare state, they have yet to explain.
There is probably a very productive debate to be had about how this new set of government perks might work. Maybe it’s the path to political victory for Republicans. There is certainly space for fresh ideas to emerge on the Right. But for me at least – and I imagine I’m not alone – Gerson’s rationale for a reformicon agenda has a strong and disagreeable “abandoning free-market principles to save the free-market system” vibe to it. If it’s not only about how we tax people, but about ceding some of our deepest philosophical beliefs, it’s going to be a nonstarter.