And speaking of Alan Jacobs, I very much enjoyed his other recent post on whether he’s a conservative. His answer, in brief: he’s not sure, doesn’t really care, is definitely not a Republican, but holds to three overarching political principles that he thinks might be relevant to answering the question: he’s a consistent pro-life Christian, he believes in the principle of subsidiarity, and he laments our neglect of the wisdom of our ancestors.
In terms of core principles, I don’t really line up with this. I am neither a Christian nor consistently pro-life, though I have great respect for what I tend to speak of as the Tolstoyan tendency in religion and politics. Similarly, I’m not consistent in my preferences about what level of organization is best for solving problems – there are things that big, established organizations do better, and things better left to small, local, spontaneous efforts, and the funny thing is that the latter, if they prove really successful, have an alarming tendency to evolve into the former. But I very much value the perspective that does consistently prefer problems be handled at the lowest possible level, and agree that this perspective is a vital counterweight to the preference for big-ism that predominates in our society today. For all these reasons, and others, I’m very happy to be associated with this magazine.
If I am a conservative (and I don’t really care whether I’m so described – I’m functionally on the left these days politically-speaking, and when people ask I describe myself as TAC’s “house liberal” because that’s easier than explaining all the ways in which it’s more complicated than that), it’s for temperamental reasons. I have a Burkean suspicion that everything is the way it is for a reason – reasons which may be lousy, but still must be reckoned with before rushing off to change things. As well, I am increasingly of the conviction that happiness in life depends first and foremost on laboring in fields one loves. And they say everyone is most conservative about what he or she knows, and loves, best.
But I’m also someone with a natural taste for political wonkery, and with a natural affinity for the reformist tendency politically – for those who, little by little and brick upon brick seek to build a better city. And so I was equally keen to read what Ross Douthat outlined as the “reform conservative agenda” for our times.
Here’s his list:
a. A tax reform that caps deductions and lowers rates, but also reduces the burden on working parents and the lower middle class, whether through an expanded child tax credit or some other means of reducing payroll tax liability. (Other measures that might improve the prospects of low-skilled men, ranging from a larger earned income tax credit to criminal justice reforms that reduce the incarceration rate, should also be part of the conversation.)
b. A repeal or revision of Obamacare that aims to ease us toward a system of near-universal catastrophic health insurance, and includes some kind of flat tax credit or voucher explicitly designed for that purpose.
c. A Medicare reform along the lines of the Wyden-Ryan premium support proposal, and a Social Security reform focused on means testing and extending work lives rather than a renewed push for private accounts.
d. An immigration reform that tilts much more toward Canadian-style recruitment of high-skilled workers, and that doesn’t necessarily seek to accelerate the pace of low-skilled immigration. (Any amnesty should follow the implementation of E-Verify rather than the other way around, guest worker programs should not be expanded, etc.)
e. A “market monetarist” monetary policy as an alternative both to further fiscal stimulus and to the tight money/fiscal austerity combination advanced by many Republicans today.
f. An attack not only on explicit subsidies for powerful incumbents (farm subsidies, etc.) but also other protections and implicit guarantees, in arenas ranging from copyright law to the problem of “Too Big To Fail.”
This is an interesting list, and there’s much that I agree with there. I strongly favor item (f), which isn’t really on the agenda of either major party today. Item (e) is quite interesting, and it’s indicative of just how far to the right the center of gravity at this magazine is that people like Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru are arguing for a looser monetary policy as an alternative to fiscal stimulus while TAC is far more sympathetic to goldbug arguments. I’ve been nervous about market monetarism in the past, but Scott Sumner’s persistence has made me much more comfortable over time. In any event, a policy debate between market monetarists and Keynesians would be much more substantive and productive than what we’ve seen the past few years.
Items (b) and (c) are insufficient as a health-care agenda in and of themselves, but (leaving aside any discussion of Social Security for the time being) I could see them working well as part of a Brad Delong-plan style reform of health-care, which also involves making a great deal of basic preventative care “cheaper than free.” (And, by the way, I don’t think (b) and (c) in any way require repealing Obamacare – rather, I think they could only work within the rubric of either Obamacare’s regulated exchanges or single-payer healthcare, because those are the only ways to establish universality without simply dumping all the sickest people on the government’s tab).
As for (d) I am troubled by the current approach to immigration reform for all the reasons Ron Unz has articulated, and I agree with his view that a large hike in the minimum wage is an important prerequisite to tackling immigration properly. Beyond this, my preferred approach would be to auction visas, both to let the market decide which skills are genuinely scarce and so that there was revenue to offset the costs of immigration, which are currently paid by the public at large while the benefits accrue predominantly to employers and the immigrants themselves.
And that leaves item (a), and Ross’s addendum on taxes:
You’ll notice, in what I’ve included and what I’ve left out above, that there are also things that a G.O.P. reformed along these lines wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t embrace (or re-embrace) a cap-and-trade bill, or any sweeping regulatory response to climate change. (The influence of Jim Manzi is strong here.) It wouldn’t endorse further tax increases — or not unless something like the Wyden-Ryan Medicare plan was actually on the table.
I can understand, from a negotiating perspective, why it would be useful to say: we won’t agree to new taxes unless we get something important in return policy-wise. I can understand, as well, from a coalition-building perspective why it might be prudent to pay lip service at a minimum to the lower-marginal-rates orthodoxy. But is there any reason to call this part of the “reform conservative agenda?” Is there anything reformist about this? Anything based on actual conviction about what the best policy might be?
For a generation now, Republican orthodoxy on taxes has been that marginal rates must not go up, ever, for any reason – and, ideally, no taxes should go up, ever, for any reason. But when total Federal receipts remain lower as a percentage of GDP than at any time between 1960 and 2000, and when taxes at all levels remain lower in the United States than in any other major industrialized country, is it plausible that the aggregate level of taxation (as opposed to the inefficiency of the tax system) is a serious economic problem? Or that, even if economic inequality per se is deemed not the core economic problem, that the problem with our tax system is that it is too progressive?
There’s a big debate to be had about what our tax system should look like, and the conservative position historically has been that we should be taxing consumption more and investment less (which is why ruling out carbon taxes seems to me a strange policy choice). In an era of increasing inequality, I think the burden is on conservative tax reformers to find ways to achieve that shift without reducing progressivity. But if the conservative movement shibboleths that cuts in the top marginal rate are always desirable, and aggregate increases in revenue are always to be opposed, and new categories of taxation cannot be contemplated – if these aren’t challenged, then how can the right be a serious participant in these debates? And isn’t that what reformists are aiming for – to be taken seriously as participants in policy debates?
If I were articulating a “reform conservative agenda,” front and center would be the statement that anti-tax ideology must cease to be the defining core of the conservative agenda. Because as things stand right now, that’s what the core consists of, and everything else is negotiable so long as that core is preserved. And that is we you got the catastrophic policy agenda of the last conservative Republican President.
But, like I said, I don’t care whether I’m a conservative. So why should you listen to me?