Facing Inequality

In the Weekly Standard, Matthew Continetti concedes the reality of income inequality, but concludes that it’s simply not the government’s place to intervene:

Too quick to dismiss the occupiers, too convinced that the bad economy will doom Obama’s reelection, too distracted by the silliness of the Republican primary, too beholden to the egalitarian assumptions of the left, Republicans and conservatives have not responded coherently to the arguments put forward by their newly invigorated opponents. … The way out is to reject the assumption that government’s purpose is to redress inequalities of income. 

I completely agree as a general principle. But to see the world in purely ideological or ideal terms is to miss something. Political conservatism, as I understand it, is the constant adjustment of government to changing social, economic and moral changes in society, with a preference for stability and limited government. It has principles – fiscal prudence, limited government, strong defense – but it also knows when to adjust those in the face of reality. To give an example, as a Benjamin_Disraeli_by_Cornelius_Jabez_Hughes,_1878principle, I oppose progressive taxation; in practice, I see no way even America will move to it. As a principle, I don’t want to see the wealthy and successful penalized for their success. These people are often, though not always, the job-creators and wealth-creators. You do not help the poor by punishing the rich.

But this is not where we are, is it? We are at decades-high inequality and declining social mobility – two major threats to the social order conservatives want to maintain. The tax code, as Tom Coburn has pointed out, is riddled with loopholes for the perquisites of the very rich, and for their income. Some groups of citizens have become rentier classes, using their expertise and mastery to enrich themselves at the expense of others. The top two categories of these sectors are doctors (vastly overpaid alongside every aspect of US healthcare) and bankers (bordering on criminal in the imbalance between what they contribute to society and what they get out of it). Globalization has accelerated income inequality even beyond our worst fears in the 1990s. And the rich have essentially bought the Congress, which is why healthcare reform and banking reform have become so tough.

Instead of reiterating that conservatism, properly speaking, should be indifferent to these trends, ruling them out of bounds for government action, conservatives should right now be assessing how to adjust these principles to the new reality. Some – like Alan Simpson or David Frum or Bruce Bartlett or Richard Posner – are. There is a tradition in Toryism, One Nation Conservatism, which, in Britain, oscillates in the Conservative Party with its more neo-liberal Thatcherite strand. This One Nation Toryism, innovated by Disraeli, takes national division and inequality seriously as a problem for social stability. My view is that both conservative strains are necessary, and that the GOP needs to revive its moderate, pragmatic identity now, when it is most desperately needed. The point of prudential judgment is knowing when to compromise, not taking pride in never compromising.

That means above all tackling the debt aggressively in the long term while avoiding a debt trap in the near term; that means serious long-term entitlement and defense cuts and a scythe to end as many loopholes and deductions in the tax code as possible. I’d leave only charity as an exception but would scrap that if the alternative was the status quo. The truth is we currently have a golden opportunity to raise revenues and cut rates a little if we tackle the corruption of the tax code. We’d also throw lobbyists, like Herman Cain and Jack Abramoff, out of business. If this isn’t a conservative response to our current crisis, I don’t know what is.

Alas, we have the party of Cantor. Complete indifference to vast economic inequality, no plans or ideas for how to generate middle class growth and jobs, scorched earth partisanship,and a rigid attachment to ideology, conservatism’s age-old nemesis. If the Super-Committee fails, it will be because one party alone refuses to budge on one half of the equation – revenues. That very intransigence destabilizes the US and the whole world.

And since when do conservatives stand for destabilization?

(Photo: Benjamin Disraeli by Cornelius Jabez Hughes, 1878.)