On the heels of the Bloomberg piece entitled Do Conservatives Have Any New Ideas? comes the report, Room to Grow, described by Jonah Goldberg as something you can slap people with who say conservatives have no new ideas. But the ideas in the report aren’t really particularly new, or, in many cases, and more importantly, good.
Some ideas are great, of course, such as repealing occupational licensure laws and broadening school choice. But what the report mostly fails to do is something absolutely critical for conservatives to begin doing. And that is consistently applying conservatism’s old ideas to new problems.
In his analysis of Room to Grow, exceptionally pretty Cato scholar Scott Lincicome provides a good rundown of some of the old ideas underpinning conservatism.
First, it might help to think of government like a raging fire, something that should be easy for conservatives. We understand that government consumes human capital, innovation, economic growth and personal freedom. Now how do you fight fire? For too long, conservative ideas have centered around fixes like changing the color of the fuel, throwing the fuel from a different direction, adjusting the height from which we pour it. But conservatives have not seriously considering shrinking the fire by limiting its fuel for a long, long time.
Consider the examples Lincicome uses. The federal fire has eaten up the free market in the US for housing and education. Both are now exorbitantly expensive due to various federal government subsidies and regulations. Conservatives’ fix to the problem is throwing more fuel on the federal fire through tax cuts, wage subsidies, bailouts, and federally insured loans.
Here’s a old/new idea: get government out of the way. cut off the spigot. end the subsidies. cut the regulations. help the middle class by allowing the market to work for them.
“To advocate new in-kind or monetary transfers (tax credits, wage subsidies or whatever) to the poor and middle class without also fixing the policies that inflate prices and hinder consumption won’t actually permit these Americans to improve their and their families’ lives,” Lincicome writes. “Put simply: who cares if you have a few extra dollars per week from the government if the cost of many highly-regulated and subsidized necessities keeps outpacing any such increase?”
Here we come to where the fire analogy fails us. Subsidies and regulations don’t hurt everyone. They hurt the middle class by raising prices. But they help the rich. Bankers, lenders, schools, realtors are all “helped” tremendously by artificially high prices, demand boosts, and regulatory capture.
The easiest and most profitable thing for Republican Congresscritters to do is to continue offering big business the perks they’ve come to know and love, and appease the middle class by offering them tax breaks and handouts to help ease the pain. They’ll call the latest appeasements “new ideas,” but they’re really anything but.
Let’s look at the AEI roundup for the old wine in new skins. They want to give unemployed people money to move instead of unemployment insurance payments. But why is it so hard for the unemployed to move? Well besides the fact that many people live near their extended families and are well integrated into the communities, they also likely have mortgages, thanks to the US government’s decades-old unending crusade to ensure every American is saddled with one. What does that mean for the unemployed? Well if they’re living in one of America’s many, many towns where a factory or other major employer has closed or left, that means no one wants to buy their house from them. Are conservatives advocating for enough government money to buy people out of their mortgages? If not, this is pretty unlikely to help anything.
And so it goes. Lower the minimum wage, but just temporarily. Cut payroll taxes, but just for the first few months. Pretend to help, but make sure everything that is keeping Americans down stays mostly in place.
These recommendations are new ways to implement the oldest trick in the book: crony capitalism masquerading as “pro-business” and “helping the middle class.”
New ideas are overrated. That’s sort of the point of conservatism. The whole “standing athwart history, yelling stop” thing is predicated on the understanding that the old ideas are pretty awesome. Limiting government works. Cutting regulations works. Ending subsidies works. Conservatives don’t need new ideas. They need to get serious and become principled about consistently applying the old ideas to the new problems they’ve created by letting government get out of control.