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Forbes.com

 

Let's Refocus Conservatism Around Economic Mobility

February 22, 2014

By Avik Roy

The other day White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said something that can, and should, define the debate between conservatism and progressivism for years to come. The Congressional Budget Office had published a report estimating that ObamaCare would shrink the size of the U.S. labor force by 2.5 million full-time-equivalent workers. Carney’s response? That this was good news. “As part of this new day in health care, Americans would no longer be trapped in a job,” said Carney, “and would have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”

Carney’s quip was no off-the-cuff gaffe. His argument–that America is a better place when taxpayer subsidies can help people drop out of the work force–has been uttered repeatedly by Democratic partisans and progressive pundits in the ensuing days. It’s an argument that brings into sharp relief the moral and political opportunity for conservatives–should they choose to take it.

Free-market capitalism has been the single greatest cure for human poverty that the world has ever seen. So why is it that it’s the left, not the right, that gets credit for its efforts on behalf of the poor?

The reason isn’t that progressive policies are better for the poor. It’s that 80% of life is showing up–and when it comes to the topic of how to address poverty, it’s the left, not the right, that shows up with a concrete policy agenda.

Why things evolved this way is a long story. But a proximate reason is that Republican voters tend to be middle-class employed and retired people who feel like they’ve paid enough in taxes and don’t see why more should be asked of them to shower government benefits on others.

And they’re right. We spend more than enough money already to provide a true safety net. Take education. We spend $15,000 a year per pupil on education–more than any other country in the world–and yet our educational outcomes trail those of our peers. U.S. government per capita spending on health care exceeds all but three other countries, and yet we have 40 million people without health insurance. We spend nearly a trillion dollars a year on means-tested antipoverty programs, and yet the official poverty rate has barely budged in 50 years.

An emerging movement within American conservatism–what some call “reform conservatism”–seeks to tackle these problems. It’s a philosophy that goes back to former New York congressman Jack Kemp. He described the American idea this way: “Everyone should have the same opportunity to rise as high as their talents and efforts can carry them; and while people move ahead, we should endeavor to leave no one behind.”

Conservatives, of course, have long held a sheaf of policy ideas to address the real problems that low-income Americans face. Far too often, though, the conservative approach to poverty and social mobility is left to collect dust in think tanks, while Republican politicians focus on cultivating the people who already vote for them.

Politics is about priorities. In any given congressional session or presidential term, leaders have time to push three or four major ideas into law. Tax cuts and spending restraint–worthy goals to be sure–have been the top priorities for the GOP. But those aims can best be achieved if conservatives first judge each policy initiative by this benchmark: How much better off will it make the poor?

Welfare reform was signed into law by a Democratic President because he was convinced by conservatives that the old welfare program harmed the people it was meant to help. For conservatism to become a national movement again, it must speak first and foremost for those at the bottom looking up.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2014/02/22/refocus-conservatism-around-economic-mobility/

 

 
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