David Brooks says Room To Grow, the reform conservative agenda put forth by Pete Wehner, Yuval Levin, and others, is a “great start,” but gets a couple of important things wrong. They both have to do with sin.
The report, in part, calls for devolving power to individual households by offering things like family tax credits, and giving families more choice, and therefore control over their affairs. Brooks doesn’t buy that:
First, the authors underestimate the consequences of declining social capital.
Today, millions of Americans are behaving in ways that make no economic sense: dropping out of school, having children out of wedlock. They do so because the social guardrails that used to guide behavior have dissolved. Giving people in these circumstances tax credits is not going to lead to long-term thinking. Putting more risk into vulnerable people’s lives may not make them happier.
I think he’s right about that. I am a middle-aged educated professional with a good yearly income. Do you know how I do my taxes? I have a terrific financial adviser who takes care of them. I am utterly baffled by the tax forms. My poor wife was hardly any better, though compared to me, she is a financial wizard. When we finally broke down and hired a financial adviser seven or eight years ago, he discovered that we had not done things as well as we might have, and was able to refile our taxes back several years, obtaining for us a substantial refund. Now, we have the money to hire an adviser, and he has done a great job of helping us file taxes smartly and invest wisely. It’s hard to know where we would be today without him. It’s not that we’re bad people; rather, it’s that we two journalism majors are badly overmatched when it comes to the complexities of managing one’s finances.
If I find this too difficult to handle, what about the guy down the street who barely graduated high school? I heard a teacher friend a couple of weeks ago talking about various disasters at her school — kids coming from shattered families, in sad, sad shape. What’s a “pro-family tax credit” going to mean to them when they get older? These are people who can barely get their lives in order. I’m all for “pro-family tax credits,” but they will benefit people like me, who have the education and the means to take advantage of them. It’s like the big Republican plan of a decade ago to let people invest their Social Security funds. Does the retired maintenance man and his retired supermarket clerk wife have the ability to do that successfully? Where do they even start? I’m not saying they’re dumb, but I am saying that what seems perfectly normal to educated middle-class people who live in Washington, DC, is alien to the experience of many, many of us.
On the drive to the airport on Sunday morning, Peter Lawler and I were talking about the kinds of people we both know, living in small towns: working-class people whose skills quickly become obsolete in our fast-evolving economy. They’re told they have to re-train, and many of them do. But what happens when those new skills become obsolete? And what happens if you’re the kind of man or woman who was gifted by a strong back, but not a nimble mind? If the situation were reversed, and the economy privileged strong backs and not nimble minds, I, a nerd who possesses the latter but, owing to a weak constitution and past injuries, am seriously deficient in the former, would be in a bad place — and there would be little I can do about it.
The point I’m getting at here is that there is something utopian about libertarian-conservative plans to devolve decision-making and autonomy to people whose lives are so chaotic — in part through their own bad choices, but also because they grew up in a more permissive society that left them particularly vulnerable to their own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of their parents — that they demonstrably cannot handle it. We will always need a paternalistic state to a certain degree. I don’t see how an honest reckoning of our social condition can conclude otherwise.
Second, conservatives should not be naïve about sin. We are moving from a world dominated by big cross-class organizations, like public bureaucracies, corporations and unions, toward a world dominated by clusters of networked power. These clusters — Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities — are dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves. Society is split between those bred into these networks and those who are not. Moreover, the U.S. economy is increasingly competing against autocratic economies, which play by their own self-serving rules.
Absolutely — and this is a point I made strongly in my book Crunchy Cons. Conservatives find it very easy to see how naive liberals are about Lust and its deleterious consequences for individuals and societies. I’m speaking broadly here, but in general, liberals tend to see no problem with it as long as all parties are consenting, and they tend to frame objections to it as moral fault (e.g., repression, hatred of the body, etc.).
Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be awfully naive about Greed, and its deleterious consequences for individuals and societies. I’m speaking equally broadly here, but in general, they tend to seen no problem with it as long as all parties have freely consented to the economic activity, and they tend to frame objections to it as moral fault (e.g., class warfare).
Both sides, it seems to me, tend toward naivete about power. Liberals are prone to be credulous about the concentration of power in the government, and overly suspicious of power in the hands of private business, and conservatives are the exact opposite. In truth, a just society requires both to check each other. Any time you have a concentration of power, you have the likelihood that it will be abused.
Having said all this, I don’t want to be read as shooting down the reform conservatives’ plan — and Brooks doesn’t either (he calls it “the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American right has produced this century,” which is not a high bar to clear, but still). We have to start somewhere. It’s only that having read Brooks’s column, it sounds like the document, as strong as it is, also suffers from some of the same idealistic thinking about reason and human nature that one often sees in proposals from wonks of both left and right. I could be wrong about this, and welcome correction.