Conservative Redistribution?

by Peter Augustine Lawler

According to Kimberly Strassel (and this is the general line of the Wall Street Journal), conservatives are those who believe that government should do as little as possible to inhibit to the operation of the free market and as much as possible to maximize the free choice of individuals. Everyone will be better off as a result. Any deviation from that orthodoxy is to be branded the replacement of principle by politics.

So all policy aiming at redistribution of any kind is confiscatory democratic pandering. That includes from the rich to the poor. But it also includes policies aimed at bolstering the weakening middle class. It also includes redistribution from those without children to those who raise them. A just law never treats a person as a member of any class. That includes families, not to mention countries. A free individual is never to be viewed as a part — even a free and relational part — of some whole greater than himself or herself. (Actually, I’m departing from strict individualism by using gender-specific pronouns.)

Strassel objects to the proposal in the conservative reformist manifesto Room to Grow for child tax credits. I don’t know enough to be able to speak with authority on the prudence of the details of the proposal. But its idea is that we should use the tax code to produce a modest redistribution from the unshackled with children to those who to take responsibility for them.

Let’s consider how very modest this idea is. It’s not the repressive natalism of the vision of Putin that might end up requiring women to have kids for Mother Russia. It’s not restricting access to contraception or abortion. It’s not even about using Teddy Roosevelt’s bully pulpit to tell American women to stop being selfish and do their reproductive duty for the future of their country. Everyone believes that the Supreme Court was right when it said, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that in a free country women can in no way be coerced into being reproductive machines for the state. (I’m leaving aside the fact that such a thought has nothing to do with the American case against abortion.)  And the tax credit can’t be confused with welfare; the benefit is only for taxpayers, after all.

The future flourishing of free individuals in our country depends on more than one kind of growth. Sure, we need to grow the economy, and generally the market principles show us the way there. But we also need to grow our population or at least contain its shrinkage. As Jim Capretta tells us, our entitlements are toast for demographic reasons alone (too many burdensome old people and not enough young and productive ones), at least if current trends continue. While consistent libertarians may celebrate that impending implosion as a new birth of freedom, there’s also the fact that — even with all those robots to come – we’ll still need a skilled and reliable workforce to do all the economic growing we might. And nobody really believes anything other than good workers, in most cases, were raised right. The main determinant of long-term personal productivity is the quality of one’s parents.

Consider that the inventor of the free individual tied to his fellow individuals only on the basis of contract and consent, John Locke, drew a line at raising children. Husband and wife can relate to each other as free individuals unsuckered by love, but not parent and child. Parenthood, according to Locke, has nothing necessarily to do with biology, but is a set of rights and duties possessed by whoever cares for a child. That indispensable care or love is not a characteristic of a free individual. Caregiving is at the expense of any particular individual’s productivity, as well as time-sucking constraint on his or her freedom. The classes of parent and child have to be recognized and facilitated by law, although conceivably even the categories of husband and wife might wither away in pursuit of happiness or maximum possible liberation. The libertarian utopias that imagine otherwise are pretty much always childless. And unless the transhumanist’s Singularity actually comes, how realistic is that?

So a child credit is for anyone caring for children — including single moms and dads, same-sex couples, and so forth. It doesn’t, I can say as a father on Father’s Day, privilege dads over moms or moms over dads. It’s based on the fact that we can’t be pro-choice when it comes to caring for kids.

Given that our country needs both money and kids, there’s justice in asking a little more in money from those who aren’t supplying any kids. And there’s justice in doing what we can in a free country to help struggling members of our economically stagnant middle class to balance work and parental responsibility. I doubt that this tax credit will actually incentivize people who can benefit from it to have more kids. But it would be good if it did.

If I wanted to change the focus, I would go on to say that it no longer seems as clear as it once did that lower taxes and fewer regulations for “job creators”  are actually most of the recipe for improving most American lives. We see too many increases in productivity that don’t have a corresponding increase in jobs. Sometimes, in fact, the key to efficiency and productivity, as it is at Amazon, is replacing people with robotics. And there are some libertarians who actually believe that the key to making higher education better is replacing professors with machines.

I’ve mentioned often, in fact, the candid prediction of Tyler Cowen that the future is endlessly bright for members of the cognitive elite highly comfortable with working with genius machines (and marketing the productions of said machines), but most people will become, at best, marginally productive — often intellectually, relationally, and materially worse off than they are now. Becoming more attentive to the middle class means really thinking about the ambiguous effects of the 21st-century global marketplace on the lives of ordinary American persons — who aren’t only productive individuals but parents, children, creatures, friends, and citizens.