“Figuring out how to restore growth and how to construct an effective but affordable safety net, are questions for debate, analysis, and democratic decision-making. My answers to those questions may differ from yours, but dividing up into warring tribes and demonizing each other aren't the ways to figure out who's right.” ~ Brink Lindsey
Arthur Brooks has a new book out, The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future, which basically is a call-to-arms for what he describes as a new culture war:
"This is not the culture war of the 1990s. This is not a fight over guns, abortions, religion, or gays. … Rather, it is a struggle between two competing visions of America's future. In one, America will continue to be a unique and exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism."
Brink Lindsey’s critique of this book and the notion of a new culture war is well worth the read. It’s always messy business to so inelegantly mix economics and culture, and I’m never fond of new wars however abstract they may be. As a devout culture-war pacifist, I don’t want economics turned into the next abortion debate.
As Lindsey notes, we’re sure to blur “issues of regulation and redistribution” in ways that make the topic almost useless and indecipherable. That’s fine for the purposes of populism, but for the purposes of governance and creating sustainable positive attitudes toward markets, it’s trouble brewing.
Countries with very lavish redistributive welfare programs, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, also embrace extraordinarily free markets with very little government intervention or regulation. Free trade in these nations is widely accepted, but so are high taxes and cradle-to-grave social welfare programs.
If you take a look at the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, you’ll notice that a number of countries with much more redistributive economies nonetheless make the list and seven rank above the United States, including Ireland, Switzerland and Canada. This despite social-democratic programs such as universal health care. Whether the social programs in these countries are sustainable is another question altogether, but do not reflect attitudes toward markets or free trade at all.
Rather than creating a new culture war – between the ones we have already, the drug war, and the very real wars burning overseas, we hardly have time to start another – we should be focusing on creating a more sustainable fiscal future by reforming middle class entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Serious politicians will need to look into our vast and unsustainable network of subsidies and protections in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, defense, and energy and find ways to scale back on all of these programs. But again, this is not a cultural question let alone one ripe for an out-and-out culture war. These are economic issues.
It’s unfortunate that Brooks, whose economics I largely agree with, has taken this approach. Fiscal conservatives and free-marketeers should avoid this sort of muddled populism. A positive focus on good governance, limited government, free markets, and widespread prosperity should be at the core of Republican messaging. Not a call to arms in another doomed culture war.