Reform Conservatism

Reform Conservatism Won't End the Liberal Welfare State, It'll Reinvent it

Policy prescriptions that offer a rewarmed mix of old and new liberal ideas

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Julia's Neighborhood
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Having spent the last six years in the political wilderness, it is  understandable that conservatives are eager to reclaim the reins of power. It's also understandable that they want to play to their strengths—and Democratic weakness—in tailoring an agenda to their core constituency: middle-class Americans.

What is less understandable is why many conservatives have ended up with a mix of old and new liberal ideas that thoroughly scale back the right's long-running commitment to free markets and limited government. But that is exactly what reform conservatism—a hot new movement powered by about 50 of the brainiest young conservatives—does.

Reformicons, as they are called, deny that of course. But if one looks at reform conservatives' economic proposals—some of them laid out in National Affairs' editor Yuval Levin's edited volume Room to Grow and fleshed out by National Review's Reihan Salam, The New York Times' Ross Douthat, and some analysts at the American Enterprise Institute—it is hard to escape the conclusion that these are liberal policy prescriptions. Although reform conservatives start from very different philosophical premises than entitlement liberals, when it comes to specific programs, they land at an almost identical spot.

Middle-class Americans are very focused on the economy, and politicians of all stripes are increasingly focused on middle-class Americans. Republicans had an 11-point edge in the midterms with voters earning between $50,000 and $100,000. Democrats want to cut into that lead. But their talk about income inequality doesn't have much traction. According to a January CBS/New York Times poll, only 3 percent of Americans cite the income gap as a top concern, well below the 18 percent who stress the economy and jobs. Likewise, 74 percent of respondents to a Reason-Rupe poll last August wanted Congress to prioritize growth compared with the 20 percent who wanted to reduce income inequality.

Given such sentiments, you'd think it would be a perfect time for conservative reformers to double down on a growth agenda that spurs entrepreneurship and job creation through broad-based tax cuts, deregulation, and entitlement reform. But that's not what they're doing.

There are certainly growth-oriented aspects to their new proposals. For example, Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute pleads in Room to Grow that we ought to slash occupational licensing laws that require cosmetologists to spend 372 hours in training before they can obtain a license to practice, a huge barrier to upward mobility.

But reform conservatives don't want to simply hack off the heavy hand of government when it thwarts individual aspirations. "Not everyone is John Galt," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted at a reformicon retreat last year. Reformicons also want to use the hand of government to actively promote middle-class interests.

Levin eloquently notes that what matters most about society "happens in the space between the individual and the state occupied by families, communities, civil and religious institutions, and the economy." I agree. But libertarians (like me) would argue that we ought to expand that space by keeping the government at bay.

That is not the reformicon conclusion. They believe that to limit the demand for government, one has to first use the government to strengthen these institutions, especially in the face of the instability and uncertainty produced by a dynamic capitalistic system. And just as George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism proffered a series of special tax incentives to prop up religious institutions, reformicons want targeted tax breaks to strengthen middle-class families. Some want to restrict immigration and trade, just like unions of yore.

To accomplish the tax goals, Robert Stein, former U.S. Treasury deputy assistant secretary, hammers out a fiscal policy framework that has since become the reformicon lodestar.

Stein begins with a powerful critique of the entitlement state. He notes that Social Security and Medicare have simultaneously increased society's need for children (to maintain a balance of workers and retirees) while diminishing the individual incentive to have them. Why bother raising children if Uncle Sam will take care of you in your old age? Worse, parents who do have children face double jeopardy in that they have to bear the expense of raising them while paying for current retirees. However, those who forego children get all the benefits without bearing the full costs. All of this discourages family formation, insists Stein.

However, Stein notes, the old Reagan-era solution, cutting marginal income tax rates for middle-class families, won't do. Among other things, their rates aren't high enough for cuts to result in meaningful savings.

Instead, Stein proposes upping middle-income families' annual tax relief from the current $1,600 to $9,000 per child to offset the perverse incentives of the entitlement state against having children.

This may sound reasonable on its face. But it is a giant exercise in cost shifting that does nothing to actually scale back the welfare state. In fact, it deliberately leaves the welfare state intact so as to coopt it for conservative ends. "We should move away from arguing about how much we should spend for the liberal welfare state to arguing about how to replace it with a conservative approach to government," Levin explains.

And indeed, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a darling of reformicons, has worked up a bold plan to rejigger the tax code with an eye toward rewarding family formation. He has also proposed the Working Family Flexibility Act, which would let private employers offer employees a choice in taking overtime compensation or time off, something that they can't do under current law. That's fair. However, it will also require that this option be included in private sector collective bargaining agreements. Others have proposed tax credits for stay-at-home moms and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit from the poor to middle-income families.

Even liberals could not have imagined going this far.

And how will we pay for all this? The national debt is already $18 trillion. Stein recommends raising marginal rates on incomes that are currently taxed at 25 percent to 35 percent, marking the end of Reaganomics. But that won't be enough to fund the more ambitious versions of his plan.

Reformicons are flirting with eliminating corporate welfare and crony capitalism (which is great), dumping talk about balancing the budget to free up borrowing (which is not so great), and good old-fashioned class warfare to soak not just the super-rich, but also the merely affluent (which is really disappointing).

There are many things to like in the reformicon proposals. But the big picture looks like this: Broad-based, neutral tax cuts to stimulate growth are out, markets are optional tools, the welfare state is cool, redistributive social engineering is the way forward, and class warfare is in.

Reform conservatives are trying to outbid liberals for the spoils of the welfare state, shifting dependence on the state from single moms and minorities (a liberal constituency) to parents and families (a conservative constituency). This may or may not be a workable vision. How conservatives will avoid the unintended consequences that have bedeviled the liberal welfare sate, they have yet to explain.

Either way, it represents the ultimate triumph of liberalism.

Editor's note: This article originally inaccurately described the details of the Working Family Flexibility Act. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.

This column originally appeared in The Week

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  2. Others have proposed tax credits for stay-at-home moms and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit from the poor to middle-income families.

    Holy shit.

    1. I know. I can’t believe people are dumb enough to propose such obviously stupid policies either!

  3. So, which country do the ‘reformicons’ think we should invade next? Or do they prefer drone strikes?

    1. Drone strikes will always be followed by boots on the ground- eventually.

      1. Not this time!
        This time we have the right people in charge! We know who the bad guys are!

        1. What’s the ratio of u.s. Ground troops in Iraq in 2015 compared to 2007, soldier?

          1. american socialist|2.18.15 @ 11:04AM|#
            “What’s the ratio of u.s. Ground troops in Iraq in 2015 compared to 2007, soldier?”

            Hi, dipshit! Picking enough cherries to pay off your mortgage? Still licking mass murderer ass?

            1. You have a knack for not answering questions. I wonder why that is. ODS, I guess.

          2. Related question:

            What’s the number of Islamist terrorists in Iraq in 2015 compared to 2007?

            Howsabout the ratio of Iraqi territory under the control of the Iraqi government?

            Let’s take a gander at a country where we never put boots on the ground: Libya. Hows that going?

            Yeah, air forces have been claiming since WWI that they can win a war all by themselves. And failing every time that they aren’t allowed to use nuclear bombs.

            1. Crickets from lefty socialist.

            2. “Related question:

              “What’s the number of Islamist terrorists in Iraq in 2015 compared to 2007?”

              These are the types of questions I was posing to conservatives back in 2003 when they were calling me a traitor when I said that George Bush was a war criminal. They told me that I liked saddam Hussein and that he was worse than hitler. I wonder what you would call worse than worse than hitler?

              “Howsabout the ratio of Iraqi territory under the control of the Iraqi government?”

              That’s precisely the argument I’m making now– that military conflicts should be judged on their merits. If you would have asked me if I wanted to go to Baghdad to occupy a country run by a socialist strongman so oil companies can make a profit would have told you to go fuck yourself. If, on the other hand, you told me the mission was to run a few bombing missions to drop bombs on Islamists looking to ethnically cleanse Kurdish-controlled iraq that’s another story. I’m squeamish about military conflict so I’ll admit some ambivalence, but it’s not like this is 2003 when it was clear we had no business laying a finger on anyone in Iraq.

              Let’s take a gander at a country where we never put boots on the ground: Libya. Hows that going?

              1. I shouldn’t bother, but for starters:

                So this one is the righteous Iraq war?

                How did oil companies make a profit from the war?

                You aren’t talking to conservatives!

              2. amsoc:

                They told me that I liked saddam Hussein and that he was worse than hitler. I wonder what you would call worse than worse than hitler?

                I think you have an extra “worse in” in there.

                Also, I’m not sure if you just Godwinned, or your falsely begging for a Godwin, but it sounds stupid.

                1. Is that what I was doing? Hmm, I just thought I was saying that I didn’t give a crap about saddam Hussein. Where were these principled libertarians back when GWB was president? I saw at least a few of them godwinning and telling us that we had to fight this fascist dictator before he dropped a nuke on Peoria.

                  Why do libertarians get so fucking prickly when I bring up GWB? Shouldn’t we just agree that he was a war criminal who deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail and move on?

                  1. “Shouldn’t we just agree that he was a war criminal who deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail and move on?”

                    We could.

                    Instead, you decided originally to bring up some compare and contrast between GWB and Obama. Why? I don’t know, and I don’t really give a fuck.

                    I just think it sounds stupid whenever anyone brings up Hitler, no matter who they blame it on.

                  2. What does George Bush have to do with this?

          3. Thanks to George Bush. Or didn’t you know that the agreement that led to the US leaving Iraq was signed by Bush and Obama was working on an extension, but the Iraqis told him he could only keep troops in Iraq if they were subject to Iraqi law and legal system? So really, Obama just went along with the Bush plan and tried to take credit.

            1. When Obama wanted Malaki out, he was out. If he’d wanted a status of forces agreement he could have gotten one. Grow a little critical thinking skill.

  4. The great myth of compromise rears it’s head.

  5. What is less understandable is why many conservatives have ended up with a mix of old and new liberal ideas that thoroughly scale back the right’s long-running commitment to free markets and limited government.

    Do you really think that conservatives are not socialist?

    1. It’s always about pandering

      1. ^THIS^

        A truly neutral tax code doesn’t allow for the picking of winners.

  6. And indeed, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a darling of reformicons, has worked up a bold plan to rejigger the tax code with an eye toward rewarding family formation.

    Ze Vaterland needs mehr Kinder!

    1. 1: Promote reproduction of the Master Race.

      2: Acquire more lebensraum.

      3: Profit!

  7. Progressives/conservatives aren’t interested in scaling back the welfare state, they only fight over what kind of social engineering it ought to be used for.

  8. And RINOs are a new phenomenon to you?

    Social justice, social economics, social responsibility–and social conservatism.

    Leftism is like a disease, it will infect everything it can.

    This is an example of that.

  9. Liberal welfare state . . . “ya just say ‘welfare state'”.

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  11. Is it just me or does Reason switching between the classical definition of “liberal” and the more-modern definition of “liberal” from article to article about “liberals”? Here, the article means “progressive” when it says “liberal” (which is the new definition). But in another article today, “liberal” could have the classical meaning.

    Just looking for some editorial consistency. Of course, I may be making this inconsistency up in my head.

    I’ll go back to my hole now.

    1. Sigh… also, when is Reason going to join the 2010s and give you the ability to edit your comments?

      Reason switch…

    2. I think it’s the difference between having a stable of bloggers and having an editorial/writing staff.

      Hey, know what I just thought of that might be fun? A HyR wiki, just among the bloggers. Structure their pay “funny” so they have incentives both to fight & to settle, see which predominates.

  12. Trying to decide on complex policies like these based on theory rather than looking at the actual data is absurd. We have a wealth of factual data at this point about exactly what effects various approaches to the safety net have:

    A thicker safety net reduces poverty- http://politicsthatwork.com/gr…..safety-net

    High inequality is rarely a feature of prosperous societies- http://politicsthatwork.com/gr…..ality-oecd

    I can only post two links, but also on that site is a graph showing that a thicker safety net also reduces inequality.

    Any analysis that doesn’t take all that into account is pretty meaningless IMO.

    1. I think you have cause and effect mixed up, my friend.

    2. If what you are saying is correct, we could make the safety net so that nobody had to work, and everyone would be wealthy, right?

      The reason there is a bigger safety net in richer countries, is because they are richer. They have more money to offer.

      And again, just because inequality correlates to something, doesn’t mean you can write a law, decrease inequality, and the correlations will stop.

      Most of the inequality of toady in the USA is because of the Federal Reserve and government.

  13. Why didn’t they combine this comment thread with the one that ran a few days ago when they linked to the previous version of the article

  14. The moral high ground: Income earners (not parasites that steal money) should get to make their own charity choices.

    No mainstream politicians have the balls to take the moral high ground. This as described here in this article is nothing new. George Bush II wanted to replace 1/8th of the centralized bureaucrats in D.C. who were making our charity choices for us, with Government-Almighty-sanctioned CHURCH officials, who would make our charity choices for us! He called this “compassionate conservatism”, as if all other forms of conservatism were, well, uh, non-compassionate. NO ONE (aside from crazy libertardiacs, who no one will listen to) actually take the moral high ground, and say that honest individual income-earners should be able to make their own charity choices for themselves. Nothing new here folks, move along?

  15. Are there any more Republicans that actually want a smaller government, instead of just a “conservatively” run big government?

    1. They are an endangered species at this point. The Republicans and Democrats are just two varieties of Progressive for the most part.

  16. All of the people named in this article – all of them – are not conservatives but neocons, Straussians who publicly align with the right. (Neocons are usually Democrats in private). They are the GOP’s main intellectual advisers. They are the sole source of the GOP’s wealth transfer schemes and its straining leftward. Without them, the GOP would move to the right.

    1. The problem is these people hold the reins of power within the Republican Party and thereby control the money. Ask Senator McConnell how handy that kind of power is in a tight spot.

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  19. The “reformicons” are not real conservatives. Real conservatives know what they believe, they proudly proclaim their conservative principles, and do not need to some adjective such as “reform” or “compassionate” to make it more palatable. Those who do don’t want to admit to being liberal because that’s a dirty word, but they’re not comfortable with unqualified conservatism either.

    Too bad, because plain old unadulterated conservatism well articulated and followed solves every problem the “reformicons” claim to care about.

  20. “[Conservative policy proposals] deliberately leaves the welfare state intact so as to coopt it for conservative ends.”

    Seriously, who in the world is surprised at this? These are politicians we are talking about. These are people who sought out power to USE that power, not scale it back. While I’m certain there are some politicians around who earnestly want to scale back the power they have, I believe this is true for less than 10% of polticians.

    Do you know why? Leaving power in the hands of citizens is viewed by most citizens as saying “You’re on your own.” Most Americans WANT to be taken care of, actively rejecting liberty. That middle class politicians are courting for votes? The politicians are offering up solutions that the middle class wants to believe: there are free lunches and the politicians know how to deliver them.

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