Do Republicans Need a Conservative Version of the Welfare State to Win?


My friend Matthew Continetti has an interesting piece in the Weekly Standard explicating the "double bind" that Republicans face in trying to become electorally competitive again. He explains:

The domestic proposals that have the greatest chance of making the Republican party attractive to the "coalition of the ascendant"?—?immigrants, members of the millennial generation, single white women?—?involve far more government intervention in the economy than the GOP coalition?—?married white people, Wall Street, the Tea Party?—?will allow. And we haven't even mentioned changing the GOP approach to social issues, which would drive the Republican base of religious conservatives out of the party. Pursuing such proposals would break the coalition that puts Republicans close to a majority.

Continetti is not the first conservative to argue—falsely as I note in an upcoming piece for Reason magazine—that courting new constituencies such as Hispanics, Asian Americans and other minorities will require the party to give up even its pretense of limited government. Still, Continetti's basic point that the GOP does not have a coherent ideology that will allow it to court new constituencies while hanging on to its old ones is well taken. After all, how does the party appeal to the "millennial generation" that includes gays, young foodies and indie-music listening hipsters without losing the meat-and-potato social conservatives in, say, Charleston, South Carolina?

Continetti's answer, dusted off from a 1975 essay by Irving Kristol, is that what the GOP needs is an authentically conservative version of the liberal welfare state. To fashion such a state, Continetti argues, would require:

Republicans to revisit some of the assumptions they have held since the end of the Cold War. Maybe the foremost concern of most Americans is not the top marginal income tax rate. Maybe you can't seriously lower health care costs without radically overhauling the way we pay for health care. Maybe a political party can't address adequately such middle-class concerns as school quality and transportation without using the power of government. Maybe the globalization of capital and products and labor hasn't been an unimpeachable good.

I am all for rethinking post-Cold War assumptions, but do we have to throw globalization and trade liberalization under the bus in the process? After all, hostility to trade has become passé even among Third World anti-trade activists such as Vandana Shiva—the last ones holding their finger in the dyke to stop globalization. This is in no small part due to the debunking done by economists such as Jagdish Bhagwati who have shown that even the immediate losers of trade liberalization win in the long run. So what is the point of reviving this animus especially since Continetti offers no new (or even old) evidence of trade's downside?

 The point is to win "taxpaying married adults with families" over to the Republican side and make them the objects of a conservative welfare state (just as presumably liberals have made blue-collar, working class people the objects of a liberal welfare state). These people, Continetti claims, "tend to have been ill-served by the last couple of decades of American government, which has promised them the bounty of a global economy but left them paying the tab for the mistakes of Republican and Democratic elites, bankers, and bobos."

This is all very elliptical but Continetti's underlying project seems clear: He wants to coopt legitimate concerns about crony capitalism to craft a special, conservative brand of class warfare in order to pave the way for a conservative welfare state targeted at suburban middle-class families.  "Liberal welfare state could be said to benefit liberals, a conservative welfare state presumably would benefit conservatives." So much for looking out for the common good!

Setting aside whether the country that is going broke could even afford such a state, what would it look like?

The conservative welfare state of our dreams would be, well, a state. That is, it would be an effective federal government. And it would be a community. Human beings are not faceless monads choosing identities at will from a universal menu of options. Human beings are born into families, faiths, and nations.

The security of all three of these pre-liberal forms of association is important. For families, that means growing incomes while lessening the costs of child-rearing, and giving parents blocking gear against the offenses of a hazardous popular culture. For faiths, that means protecting ministerial exceptions and religious liberty. For the nation, that means borders that are secure, a trade policy that puts the interests of American laborers over the interests of multinational corporations, a sound currency, and a fearsome military.

In short, the ideal conservative welfare state would be a libertarian dystopia of even bigger proportions than the liberal welfare state. There is less welfare and more state in it.

But what is deeply ironic is that a magazine that accuses libertarians of isolationism because they oppose American military interventionism has no qualms about recommending a restrictionist immigration policy to keep foreigners out and a protectionist trade policy to keep foreign goods out. If I had to pick a term for this foreign policy, I'd call it neo-isolationism. And maybe I lack imagination, but it is hard to see how a party that wants to engage the world through its "fearsome military"—rather than through voluntary exchange and mutual cooperation—could gain enough moral high ground to craft a winning political message, especially in a war-weary country.

One last point: Continetti deeply opposes comprehensive immigration reform that includes "amnesty" for illegals not only because it would create new Democratic voters –but because it would also allegedly provoke another round of border jumping. That's what happened after Reagan granted amnesty in 1986, he claims.

This is seriously mistaken, not just on political grounds but factual ones as well. Reagan's amnesty did not encourage illegal border crossings. His failure to create any options for Mexicans to legally work in the country did. Had Reagan's amnesty been accompanied with a guest worker program that made it easy for poor Mexicans to come and go as per the availability of jobs in America, the problem of illegal immigration would have long ago disappeared. Instead the issue has become a humanitarian nightmare and an oozing political wound for the GOP. Far from opposing amnesty, Republicans should insist on including a guest worker program as part of a comprehensive immigration reform.

Or we'll be having the exact same conversation again in 10 years—with the GOP having become even more of a rump party than it already is.