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Is America’s Future Southern?

Yes, answer a number of “pro-growth” types (a distinct species often confused with conservatives). In City Journal, Wendell Cox argues that Texas is eating California’s lunch when it comes to jobs. In Forbes, Joel Kotkin points out that long-term demographic, migration, and investment trends all favor the South over the Northeast and Midwest.  The raw numbers are clearly on their side: the South is now the country’s most populous region and its largest economic area.

Why has the South overtaken the historic economic leaders? According to Cox and Kotkin, it’s the result of business-friendly policies that contrast favorably with the expensive and restrictive setup Walter Russell Mead has dubbed the blue social model. Michael Lind agrees, but casts those policies in a less favorable light. Where Cox and Kotkin see an open field for growth, Lind sees a race to the bottom:

Northernomics is the high-road strategy of building a flourishing national economy by means of government-business cooperation and government investment in R&D, infrastructure and education.  Although this program of Hamiltonianism (named after Washington’s first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton) has been championed by maverick Southerners as prominent as George Washington, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln (born in Kentucky to a Southern family), the building of a modern, high-tech, high-wage economy has been supported chiefly by political parties based in New England and the Midwest, from the Federalists and the Whigs through the Lincoln Republicans and today’s Northern Democrats.

Southernomics is radically different.  The purpose of the age-old economic development strategy of the Southern states has never been to allow them to compete with other states or countries on the basis of superior innovation or living standards.  Instead, for generations Southern economic policymakers have sought to secure a lucrative second-tier role for the South in the national and world economies, as a supplier of commodities like cotton and oil and gas and a source of cheap labor for footloose corporations.  This strategy of specializing in commodities and cheap labor is intended to enrich the Southern oligarchy.  It doesn’t enrich the majority of Southerners, white, black or brown, but it is not intended to.

So who’s right? Actually, both sides have part of the truth. But neither puts the pieces together.

Cox and Kotkin are right to reject stereotypes of the South as backwater good only for resource extraction and the supply of cheap labor. First of all, population growth in the South isn’t driven exclusively by low-skill immigration or monstrous families of slack-jawed yokels. Southern states are also destinations for an increasing number of well-educated. What’s more, the growth sectors are often high-tech. Auto manufacturing and energy aren’t the “dumb” industries they once were. The South is now competitive in business services, as well. Finally, while it’s true that wages are lower in the South, so is the cost of living, particularly housing. So people don’t need to earn as much to achieve a reasonable standard of comfort.

Yet Lind is right to point out the importance of “Whig” policies that promote infrastructure, education, and research. The road networks on which Southern sprawl depends isn’t supported by the free market. They’re built and maintained by the federal government. What’s more, growth in the South is being driven by its cities. And hotspots like Raleigh, Austin, and Houston have flourishing universities and STEM sectors that benefit from generous subsidies. Even the low cost of housing in the South is partly attributable to government intervention. The tax code encourages homebuying, which disfavors regions where much of the housing stock is for rent and encourages construction in areas with lots of land and weak zoning regulations.

So the South is enjoying impressive economic success. But it’s succeeding because its economic model is more “Northern” than it appears. That underlying similarity is also likely to find political expression over the next few decades. Even in the South, educated, well-compensated urbanites tend to vote for Democrats. That’s particularly true when they’ve moved from blue states and carried their political and cultural values with them. Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, Nashville, Orlando, and Raleigh all have Democratic mayors. As their population and clout increase, they may lead their states toward more obviously “blue” arrangements.

Northern intellectuals, then, need to get over their snobbery about the South. The Southern model is based on more than beggar-thy-neighbor policies. In any case, it seems to be working. On the other hand, the South’s boosters shouldn’t exaggerate its distinctiveness. Like the North, the South does best when it encourages innovation and high-skill employment. And that takes more than just cutting taxes and regulation.

In sum, there’s more common ground between North and South than meets the eye. It’s just hard to recognize from the anachronistic perspectives that frame so many of our political debates.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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