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A Painean Policy Proposal from a Beltway Burkean

Last week, just as the East Coast descended into a terrifying world of ice and snow, Norm Ornstein proposed “A Plan to Reduce Inequality: Give $1,000 to Every Newborn Baby.” As Ornstein described the details: It is called KidSave, and it was devised in the 1990s by then-Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, with then-Senator Joe Lieberman […]

Last week, just as the East Coast descended into a terrifying world of ice and snow, Norm Ornstein proposed “A Plan to Reduce Inequality: Give $1,000 to Every Newborn Baby.” As Ornstein described the details:

It is called KidSave, and it was devised in the 1990s by then-Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, with then-Senator Joe Lieberman as cosponsor. The first iteration of KidSave, in simple terms, was this: Each year, for every one of the 4 million newborns in America, the federal government would put $1,000 in a designated savings account. The payment would be financed by using 1 percent of annual payroll-tax revenues. Then, for the first five years of a child’s life, the $500 child tax credit would be added to that account, with a subsidy for poor people who pay no income. The accounts would be administered the same way as the federal employees’ Thrift Savings Plan, with three options—low-, medium-, and high-risk—using broad-based stock and bond funds. Under the initial KidSave proposal, the funds could not be withdrawn until age 65, when, through the miracle of compound interest, they would represent a hefty nest egg. At 5 percent annual growth, an individual would have almost $700,000.

By reviving a Democratic communitarian policy proposal from the 1990s, Ornstein, a resident scholar at AEI, would probably wind up pegged in the camp of what Ben Domenech branded the “Beltway Burkeans” in an essay last summer. Domenech said, “The Beltway Burkeans talk a good game about shifting the right’s coalition, but the truth is that their agenda represents a much more modest shift, in large part a reworking of the same ideas they’ve been pitching for years.” Domenech argued this Washington-centric view could hobble Republicans by disconnecting them from the populist opportunity that the Tea Party uprising afforded them. To Domenech, “A bolder approach to remaking the coalition would ditch the false promise of technocratic paternalism in favor of a bias toward individual liberty and a rediscovery of the populist agenda.” Paine is the Republican future, not Burke, then. And to the small-government populists, Ornstein’s closing sentiment, “If the cost, in the end, were even $20 billion a year, that is chump change in a $17 [tr]illion economy—and, of course, money that would all be invested in America,” is anathema.

Yet if one thumbs back through history, Tea Party favorite Thomas Paine proposes a roughly similar policy agenda. In his 1795 pamphlet Agrarian Justice, Paine makes the Rousseauean natural law case that “The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized. … Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state.” While acknowledging the property right of those who have improved the land and thus created wealth from it, Paine held that those landowners owed the community a “ground rent” for the value of the land before improvement, which belonged to the whole human race equally. So Paine sought to remedy civilization’s poverty, by providing out of that ground rent (collected as a 10 percent estate tax as the improvers of the land turn over) a sum of 15 pounds sterling to every person upon reaching their 21st birthday.

Paine’s plan also foresaw our current social security system, as it also allotted annual payments of 10 pounds sterling to those over 50, the blind, and the lame. Those searching for fresh arguments to defend the present welfare state could find worse documents to revisit than Agrarian Justice. Back to the present day, however, the intersection between Thomas Paine of natural law apologetics fame and the Beltway Burkean policy proposals points to an interesting and important lesson on political philosophy and practice.

In his widely reviewed and praised new book, Yuval Levin makes the case that Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, political interlocutors who sparred over the French Revolution, represent the birth of our current political left and right, respectively. Paine the radical individualist writing in the perpetual Now, and Burke the gradualist communitarian, keeping his gaze on generations past, present, and future. Agrarian Justice represents what Levin describes as Paine’s “primordial welfare state,” connecting him to today’s left, albeit with very different principled foundations. And one function of public retirement systems is to effect the very dissolution of connection between the generations that Burkeans fear. When people no longer have to rely on their children to support them in their old age, they, for a variety of reasons, have fewer children.

Yet as Ornstein himself points out, the average net worth in the United States is $37,000, and even that is skewed by the large concentrations of wealth at the upper end. Retirement insecurity is a problem, even if it is not anywhere near as dire as some of the most prominent (flawed) statistics make it seem. So a KidSave program could have a place in a conservative, Burkean policy agenda, so long as its crowding out effects were acknowledged, and possibly balanced by other pro-generational policy reforms, like a family-friendly tax plan.

Burke and Paine’s earlier alliance, over the justifiable grievances the Americans held against the Crown, is instructive, then. Political philosophies can clash and scream, as Burke and Paine would later do with great vehemence. But their practitioners can occasionally lay down arms to do policy work at the ground level, far below the principled wars.* Indeed, excepting the achievement of total victory, a utopian dream were there ever one in an time of divided government and divided politics, it’s the only way good policy work can be done. Should principled actors on both sides abstain from common endeavors because of such utopian restraint, the unprincipled, the compromisers out of corruption-as-usual are left free to run the table.

With long-term unemployment still at terrible levels, the health care industry still in need of significant reform, the criminal justice system perhaps in even greater need of reform, and America facing a potential demographic and fiscal crisis, one would hope that the reform efforts of Sens. Lee, Rubio, and Paul, among others, will start to pick up some Democratic partners, lest we continue to have a Congress that only “works” out cronyist legislation like the farm bill.

*Burke himself testified against me on this point in a way, as Helen Rittlemeyer points out in her own recent review ($) of Levin’s book in the American Spectator. Such is the fate awaiting those working with a figure as complex and rich as Edmund Burke.