Risk, Relativism, and Resources
Three things conservatives must know about progressivism in order to defeat it


Kevin D. Williamson

Conservatives are not immune to the Malthusian temptation — it is behind much of my friend Mark Krikorian’s arguments against immigration. But it is in regarding people as assets rather than as liabilities that conservatives really have an opportunity to claim a great deal of what has long been progressive territory. Democrats are forever going on about making “investments” in education, infrastructure, health care, and the like, but of course they never propose any real investments, only transfers and spending. Conservatives who believe that people are assets also understand that these assets require investment to maximize their value, and, like our progressive rivals, we know that many of the most important investments to make are in education and health care. The difference is that we want to make investments in performing assets — assets that offer a real return. The doubling of national spending on education in recent decades has not produced any appreciable improvement in educational outcomes, but choice and market-driven reforms promise to drive scarce resources into the most productive uses. Simply directing more money into the market to chase the same supply of medical resources is not going to improve anybody’s health care, but creating an environment that encourages real investment (especially research-and-development funds) in health-care resources such as hospitals, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices will. Sensible tort reform greatly improves the value of investing one’s resources in a medical degree, as Texas and other forward-looking states have discovered.

It is a subtle but critical difference: The point of education is not to help students get a job and therefore take them off of our Malthusian liability rolls, but to give students the resources to produce something valuable, making them a national asset. Maximizing the return on human capital is probably more important than maximizing the return on financial capital — do the former and the latter will largely take care of itself. That should be conservatives’ guiding principle when it comes to education, health care, immigration, welfare, taxes, and a host of other issues.

Conservatives are rightly feeling a little glum after the 2012 election, but Americans are not fools, we do not want to be poor and vulnerable, and we have the resources to address even our most pressing economic concerns. In the end, good policies will win out. Consider:

Over the past 15 years a coalition of liberals and conservatives has brought in for-profit free schools in education, has sliced welfare to pay off the deficit, and has privatized large parts of the health service.

[The country’s] economy continues to grow and its pro-business coalition has remained in power since 2006.

Where? Sweden. Sweden’s reform-oriented conservatives have been able to achieve a great deal not because they are moderate — they are quite radical by Swedish standards — but in part because they took the time to really understand their rivals’ motives and, unlike unsuccessful conservatives before them, did not treat their opponents’ concerns as illegitimate. Conservative reformers took into account Sweden’s egalitarian culture and its consensus-oriented politics rather than wage a Newt Gingrich–style armored assault. Consider:

Before winning the general election in 2006, Frederik Reinfeldt had learned lessons from the way the party was perceived at the previous election. The “Moderaterna” party had been previously seen as a party of right-wingers intent on threatening public welfare — a model recognized globally for its generosity and success in the post-war era. Bo Lundgren, the former Moderate leader, had proposed radical tax cuts and lost to the Social Democrat, Göran Persson. The stigma attached to the Moderaterna brand was an issue that Reinfeldt knew he must address. . . .

Reinfeldt had made very important changes behind the scenes. Every promise that the Social Democrats had made on social-welfare spending, he promised to accept and improve. He switched focus on taxation from the rich to the low-waged in an effort to stimulate economic growth. He attacked unemployment benefits with increased incentives on making work pay more. He even increased the retirement age to 67 (sound familiar?).

What becomes even more remarkable about Reinfeldt’s success is that he managed it with the 2008 banking crisis. In the first quarter of 2011, [the] Swedish [economy] grew at 6.4 percent. It has falling unemployment and a budget surplus, alongside a public debt heading southwards of 40 percent GDP. Put this together with the fact that Sweden is the second most competitively ranked country alongside Singapore, and you wouldn’t be far off thinking that Sweden might belong with the Tiger economies of Southeast Asia.

None of this success has happened by accident or overnight. Sweden for too long had a bloated public sector and welfare benefits, which stagnated ambition. But Sweden has reinforced its economy with a huge growth in recent years in the private sector and manufacturing. Sweden today is famous not just for ABBA and Ikea, but also for high-quality design, defense, fashion, technology, and a high-skilled workforce.

All of which sounds good. (I have my doubts about that 6.4 percent growth number, which in any case is not where Sweden is now.) Awfully good, in fact. The Malthusians see a race to the bottom when it comes to global wages and manufacturing, but somebody forgot to tell Sweden (and Germany — and Boeing, Cummins, etc.).

Conservatives have a great deal to offer the American electorate, but some of our policies (and a good deal of our rhetoric) worry them. Yet we can take into account varying appetite for risk, address concerns about relative economic status, and make real investments in human capital while staying true to our principles. We will never win over the hardcore Left, but the hardcore Left is not what decides U.S. elections. Republicans who are concerned about winning the loyalty of the middle class should try to understand the many legitimate reasons many middle-class voters may have had for backing Obama again, as hard as that is to understand. The despair caucus holds that everybody who voted for the Democrats in 2012 did so for a bad reason, and that the resentment-and-redistribution vote now commands a permanent majority. If I thought that were the case, I’d be learning Swedish. But I do not think that is the case.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.