Today America faces a large and growing Opportunity Deficit. Up and down our once-flourishing economy, a new and unnatural sclerosis is taking hold. For millions of working families of or aspiring to the middle class, the American Dream is slipping out of reach.
This Opportunity Deficit presents itself in three principal ways: immobility among the poor, trapped in poverty; insecurity in the middle class, where families just can’t seem to get ahead; and cronyist privilege at the top.
On the first two fronts there is some good news. A new generation of conservative leaders is emerging to meet these growing challenges. These reformers understand that it’s not enough to just cut big government. To restore equal opportunity to all Americans, we also have to fix broken government.
That’s why they have already proposed a range of principled, positive reforms to repair our welfare, prison, job-training, tax, energy, and education systems.
But as crucial as this work is, it remains incomplete. Compounding lower-income immobility and middle-class insecurity is America’s crisis of crony capitalism, corporate welfare, and political privilege, in which government twists public policy to unfairly benefit favored special interests at the expense of everyone else.
From subsidies and loan guarantees to tax loopholes and protective regulations, cronyist policies come in a variety of forms, but they all work in the same way: making it easier for preferred special interests to succeed, and harder for their competitors to get a fair shot.
In a cronyist economy, economic power is redistributed, not from the rich to the poor, but from the politically disconnected to the politically well-connected. Profits come from serving congressmen instead of customers, and the innovation and opportunity that define free enterprise start to sag.
In such an economy, increasingly built on connections instead of competitiveness, it’s no wonder we see record corporate profits and jaw-dropping gains among elites, but slow growth, stagnant wages and limited opportunities for everyone else.
Given the scope and consequences of America’s Opportunity Deficit the only option for conservatives today is a clear and simple zero-tolerance policy toward cronyist privilege of any kind.
With deep roots and powerful friends, the policies that contribute to America’s Opportunity Deficit will certainly not fix themselves.
That’s why those same reform-oriented conservatives in Congress have already begun to write and advocate for an anti-cronyist agenda—from Rep. Paul Ryan’s work to strip special-interest privilege from the budget, to Senator Rand Paul’s regulatory reform that would improve federal agency accountability, and Rep. Mike Pompeo’s bill to end federal subsidies in the energy sector.
I am also working with Senator Marco Rubio on a pro-family, pro-growth tax reform proposal to eliminate special-interest privilege from the corporate code and level the playing field for small and large businesses.
This new anti-cronyist Conservative Reform Agenda, while still a work in progress, is an exciting development. For too long Republicans have been complicit in the proliferation of cronyist policies. If we are to win back the trust of the American people—and we must—a zero-tolerance policy toward special-interest privilege has to be our starting point.
Moreover, eliminating cronyist privilege is essential to get the economy growing again by creating opportunity and driving down the inflated costs of many of the staples of middle class aspiration and security: housing, education, health care, and child-rearing.
Anti-cronyist reform should never be confused with the cheap, ugly populism of class warfare. We want successful Americans to succeed. All we ask is that they earn their success on a level playing field, subject to the judgment of the market – as truly successful Americans always have.
A conservative agenda to get right on cronyism will be good for the economy, good for the country, and, above all, the right thing to do.
Elected in 2010 as Utah's 16th Senator, Mike Lee has spent his career fighting to defend Americans’ basic liberties and to restore constitutionally limited government.
Lee graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Science in Political Science. He graduated from BYU's Law School and went on to serve as law clerk at the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, and then with future Supreme Court Justice Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr. on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Court.
Lee is a member of the Judiciary Committee, and serves as ranking Member of the Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights Subcommittee protecting business competition and personal freedom.