Whoever wins the election on Tuesday, conservatives will be in our customary unhappy position: explaining to people who are unhappy with the state of their lives that there is not really very much that we can do for them, because they are adult human beings with particular responsibilities of their own rather than livestock or pets to be cared for out of self-interest or sentimentality.
What should we tell these unhappy voters?
A few suggestions:
A great deal of what happens in your life is going to be determined by factors beyond your immediate control. You have certain natural gifts and talents, and those are not going to change very much no matter what you do. You can develop them, but there are real limits on that development. It isn’t true that anyone can become a concert pianist or a chess grandmaster or a Fortune 500 CEO if only he wants it enough and is willing to put in the work. You do have to want it, and you do have to put in the work, but those are necessary, not sufficient, conditions. If you were going to dance with the Bolshoi or play in the NFL, you’d probably know it by now.
Beyond your own endowments, a great deal of your happiness and advancement in life is going to be influenced in one way or another by the family in which you are raised. How much money your family has is a part of that, but it is not the only part, or even the most important part. Some of you have wonderful families that will encourage and advise you intelligently, helping you to make good decisions and to make the most of the gifts you have. Some of you have horrifying families marred by addiction, neglect, abuse, and worse. Government can step in and remove minors from the most extreme situations — putting them into foster homes or institutions that may or may not prove an improvement — but, for most people, the family you have is the family you have, a lifelong blessing or burden.
None of that is fair. But most of the unfairness — the vast majority of it — is working in your favor. Modern human beings have existed for about 200,000 years, and you, as a 21st-century American, are a member of a blessed minority, a true 1 percenter among all the human beings who ever have lived. You have ways of developing yourself and enjoying your life that were literally beyond the imaginations of most of the people who have lived, and indeed well beyond the dreams of most people 50 or 60 years ago.
Poverty of the sort that existed in the United States less than a century ago has been all but extinguished; to the extent that we have people who are suffering from malnutrition or sleeping in the streets, this is almost exclusively the result of psychiatric factors rather than economic ones. We could, if we were inclined, scoop those people up and put them in hospitals, which is what we used to do with them before “deinstitutionalization” — which is the refined term for throwing mentally ill people out on the streets — but that isn’t something that is going to be very useful for solving problems short of crippling psychosis. Even the admirable “housing first” programs that have enjoyed some success in Utah and elsewhere are fundamentally oriented toward mental-health and addiction treatment rather than the mere provision of housing.
But, most likely, your problem is not that you are suffering from schizophrenia or (though this is more likely) a debilitating addiction. Maybe you had a rough upbringing. Maybe, like most of us, you’d be in a better place in life if you were a little bit smarter, taller, better-looking, disciplined, and oriented toward the future. But there isn’t a government program that is going to change any of that.
Free markets — which is to say, the economic networks that emerge when people are left free to pursue their own ends and interests — are good at many things, and one of the things they are terribly good at is sorting. Companies know who their most productive people are and which of the firms they work with provide the best results; and, though it is more art than science, they are pretty good at figuring out what characteristics those valuable workers and partner firms have. As human cooperation grows more and more seamless — this is what is meant by “globalization” — markets become larger, more fully integrated, and more efficient. Your value to an employer is always relative to the value of the next-best option (just as your employer’s value to you is always relative to your next-best option), but 50 years ago your employer’s choice of next-best options was limited to the available workers in your area and those who might be recruited to relocate there for work, whereas today there are next-best options everywhere from Ireland to India, depending on your job.
To the extent that you have skills and abilities that are neither uncommon nor bound to a particular place or institution, you are now in competition with workers from around the world in a way that your father and grandfather probably weren’t. That probably is not going to change, and the government could not do much to change it even if it wanted to, which it really doesn’t and shouldn’t.
Barack Obama has often derided such observations as a philosophy of “You’re on your own.” Some conservatives and libertarians even embrace “You’re on your own” as a kind of moral maxim. I myself recently was criticized as personifying an “unfeeling” conservatism; if by “unfeeling” we mean “unsentimental,” then I do hope so. But how one feels about these realities is immaterial. This is the way things are. It is not the case that you are on your own — we have families, and communities, and social-welfare programs that ensure you aren’t — but that you are your own, an autonomous individual with responsibility for, and to, himself.
We cannot save people from the contempt that inevitably accompanies lifelong dependency, least of all from the contempt that they will feel for themselves.
For struggling, downwardly mobile residents of Michael Brendan Dougherty’s Garbutt, those are unwelcome realities. There may be some political benefit into packaging our policy solutions in the colorful wrapping paper of penny-a-pound sympathy, but in the end we are left with the same choice: People either are going to do what is necessary to become autonomous, self-sufficient individuals — and citizens, and parents, and members of communities — or they are going to be maintained in open-ended welfare dependency. We are a rich society, and we can save people from homelessness, starvation, death from common preventable diseases, etc. We cannot save them from the contempt that inevitably accompanies lifelong dependency, least of all from the contempt that they will feel for themselves. The patron-client relationship is always and everywhere the same, no matter what we do to try to disguise it.
The good news is that we, ungrateful though we are, are living in a true golden age of human flourishing. If you want to make life better for yourself — or to make life better for other people — you have never had more choices or more opportunity.
Our reform-conservative friends and the libertarians have some excellent ideas for improving welfare programs, schools, the tax code, and more, and Republicans would do well to pursue them. And the United States is not unlike India or China in that a great deal of social friction can be relieved with the lubrication of strong economic growth. After the fundamental duty of national defense (which includes securing the borders), economic growth — call it “general welfare” — should be the federal government’s main priority. But that does not mean the nickel-and-dime approach that both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump have offered, a little something for this group, a little something for that group, a tax break for this constituency, government “investments” for that one. What it means is stable rules (how are you enjoying your exciting new health-insurance market?), strong property rights, sound money, predictable policies, a light hand on taxes and regulation, and — this part will not be easy — a political culture that does not view us as dairy cattle to be fed and cared for in order to maximize the value of milking us.
That, really, is the question: Are we to be treated as human beings, with moral agency and responsibility for our own lives, or as livestock to be cared for because of what we can be used for? Either we are citizens choosing between two ideas of government, or pets choosing between two brands of kibble.