I'm Not A Conservative And You Shouldn't Be One Either

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What if the problem with your political party is that the policies it advocates are bad?

You can’t fix that problem by “rebranding” the same platform or finding younger, less-white candidates to promote it. You definitely can’t fix it by leaning into your failed policies and becoming more extreme.

The solution is to change your ideology. And that’s exactly what Republicans need to do.

Last week, I sat down to take questions from Andrew Sullivan’s readers and one question was “How would you characterise your conservatism?” I responded, as I do when asked about this, that I’m not a conservative — I was once a libertarian, but my views have changed mostly because of the recent economic crisis and now I’m a neoliberal, and I particularly favour redistributive taxes and transfers to reduce inequality.

“Redistribution” is not a matter of first principles and anyone who tells you otherwise is an mistaken. All fiscal policy is redistributive, in that it involves collecting taxes from someone and spending money on programs that benefit someone else. And the question of how progressive that redistribution ought to be depends on outside factors, such as the relative economic cost of various kinds of taxes and the level of pre-tax inequality.

Changes in economic conditions should change people’s preferences about the level of fiscal progressivity. For example, if returns to economic growth increasingly accrue to people at the top of the income distribution, we should become more favourable to progressive redistribution. If the economy becomes more fragile, with more risk of recessions that lead to years-long spells of high unemployment, that calls for a more robust and progressively-financed safety net. And if top income tax rates are well below the peak of the Laffer Curve, that creates more room for added progressivity.

As it happens, these are all conditions that have manifested over the last 30 years, and especially the last five — and they’re why I favour a more redistributive fiscal policy than I used to. Conservatives are wrong on this issue, and outside conditions have shifted over time in a way that has made them much more wrong than they used to be.

The ability of markets to fix our big economic problems on their own has also declined in recent decades. The right answer to a lot of the big regulatory questions of the 1970s, such as on trucking, banking and broadcasting, was “just get out of the way.” This is still the right answer in one severely over-regulated sector — real estate — but the problematic regulations here are largely local and therefore not a subject of the national political debate.

Today’s big federal regulatory questions are about sectors where markets are hugely dysfunctional, either inherently or because of inevitable government intervention. In health care, banking, education and energy, “just get out of the way” isn’t a suitable answer. But Republicans have come to view it as inherently un-conservative to develop mixed public-private solutions in these markets.

That’s another reason that conservatism has to go.

Amusingly, Sullivan responds to my disavowal of the conservative title by insisting that I really am a conservative, whether I know it or not — a “conservative Whig,” to be specific. No, I’m not.

I’ve never quite understood Sullivan’s attachment to the term “conservative.” It seems to me that conservatism is whatever ideology is shared by most of the people who call themselves conservatives — roughly, that taxes should be low and non-progressive; that the safety net should be strictly limited and particularly should not include a universal health care guarantee; that more financial risk should be shifted away from the government and toward individuals; that the government should promote some concept of “traditional morality.”

I don’t believe those things and neither does Sullivan, so I’m not a conservative and neither is he. What members of the Whig party favoured in England in the 1700s doesn’t enter into the question. I’ve had a lot of similar conversations over the years with libertarians who are upset that the left somehow got control of the term “liberal.” They need to let it go, too.

The obvious question, then, is what business I have trying to tell the Republican Party to change or be less conservative. After all, aren’t Republicans entitled to first principles that differ from mine? They are. But conservatism isn’t a first principle, and it increasingly runs counter to the stated first principles of Republicans.

I’m a utilitarian, so my first principle is “make people better off.” You could have some alternative set of first principles, perhaps based around protecting a concept of natural rights or a set of religious beliefs. But the justifications we most often hear for conservative economic policies are utilitarian ones — that they foster economic growth, create jobs, and make people wealthier.

Those are empirical claims, and Republicans ought to change their policy prescriptions if they turn out to be false. And my finding is that they have. The economic shock of the last five years showed several ways in which conservative economic policies fail to uplift the middle class. An improperly regulated banking sector leveraged up irresponsibly and then crashed, causing a mini-depression. People can’t find jobs. Their wages are not rising robustly.

The conservative prescription of tax cuts and regulation cuts does not address these problems. But that is the only conservative prescription. This is why Mitt Romney was in the awkward position last year of needing to talk about “jobs jobs jobs” while having only one policy — increased fossil-fuel extraction — that was likely to do anything to create them.

Conservatives have two options here. One is that they can admit that they don’t care about uplifting the middle class; that their first principles are not utilitarian and not aimed at benefitting the broad public. That would be principled, but I don’t think it would be good, and most voters would agree with me.

The other is that they can come up with a new agenda that aims at today’s middle class economic concerns. This agenda would have to accept greater fiscal progressivity in response to economic changes that have raised pre-tax income inequality. It would have to accept that we have not defeated the business cycle, and deep recessions like the one in 2009 make a stronger safety net morally necessary. It would have to address the question of how the government should best interfere in markets like health care and banking, rather than repeating mindlessly that it must get out of the way.

Conservatives will protest that this would make Republicans a lot more like Democrats. That’s true. In most advanced countries, right- and left-of-centre political parties accept the basic shape of the tax system, the safety net, and the role of government, and they fight over design matters at the margin. Despite the conservative tendency to talk about other advanced countries like they are some sort of hellscape, this system works well and we would do well to emulate it.

The role of Republicans in this system would be to provide a healthy, needed scepticism about the role and capabilities of government. But the key there, as I discussed yesterday, is “healthy.” Conservatism has committed them to an unhealthy level of objection to the government, forcing them to push policies that harm the public and costing them credibility in the cases when their cautions are actually correct.

I don’t expect my case to be popular with Republicans and certainly not with conservatives. But I’m hopeful that they will eventually listen because the problem with the Republican Party is similar to that of Britain’s Labour party in the 1980s.

Socialism was unpopular because it was a terrible idea. The only way to fix the party was to abandon its core ideology, and obviously its members were not keen on that suggestion. But in time, political necessity forced their hand, and Tony Blair took over, and the party got a substantively better platform and three massive electoral victories.

If it was possible to fix Labour, it’s possible to fix the Republicans. The only question is how long it will take.

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