The Economy Is Not Driving American Despair

Cataldo Ambulance medics Timothy Stahl (left) and Derek Travers (right), with the help of a firefighter tend to a 38-year-old man who was found unresponsive after an opioid overdose in the Boston suburb of Malden, Mass., October 19, 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
On a fundamental level, our society is economically just.

Another day has brought another tale of American woe — another lament about the alleged failures of the “old formula” of Reaganite conservatism and the internationalist order to account for the very real needs of the American people. This latest version comes from Daniel McCarthy, writing in First Things. And like many such laments, it is long on indictment and short on solutions, and pays lip service to culture while focusing mainly on economics and public policy.

I’d like to step back for a moment and challenge the very idea that there is something fundamentally broken about the American economy or American economic policy. I’d like to challenge the idea that American public policy, especially as  influenced by Reagan’s conservative movement, has “failed.” It has succeeded, magnificently, at its most important jobs. By strengthening the national defense, it has enabled Americans at home to live in peace; by improving the protection of constitutional liberties and civil rights, it has removed de jure obstacles to economic success; and by providing adequate protection for the free-enterprise system, it has ensured that our nation remains a primary destination for people from across the globe who recognize economic opportunity when they see it.

The results are rather obvious. If a person exercises the most basic degree of self-discipline and industry, completes an education, gets married, and has kids, then his or her odds of being poor are vanishingly low. Moreover, poor people who follow that sequence move up the income scale. As I noted in a print-magazine piece arguing for the primacy of individual choice over personal outcomes, “According to a 2017 Institute for Family Studies and American Enterprise Institute study, a full 71 percent of even low-income Millennials who follow the success sequence will attain the ‘middle or higher end of the income distribution by the time they are age 28–34.’”

In fact, one of the reasons why sociologists can say that marriage is an increasingly upper-class phenomenon in American life isn’t merely that upper-class Americans get married and stay married, but that those who get married and stay married join the upper class. Given that fact, it’s staggering to me that each and every person concerned with economic mobility in the United States doesn’t lead with this basic behavioral advice: If you are a person of industry and fidelity in this country, the chances that your economic prospects will improve over time are overwhelmingly good.

Any series of arguments that urges Americans to look anywhere but in their own mirror to find the person most responsible for their success is doing them a disservice. It’s urging them to neglect the main thing (their own actions) for the lesser thing (the effects of public policy).

Here is another fact. If you are not a person of industry and fidelity, the chances are much greater that you will stagnate and struggle. Your very lack of industry and fidelity will make government interventions on your behalf largely ineffectual and sometimes even harmful by softening the consequences of your choices. It also stands a real chance of inflicting traumas on your kids that could haunt them for much of their lives.

Unfortunately, these truths are in many ways fundamentally incompatible with the populist message. For populism to work, it has to be popular, and in our current cultural moment, the popular message is one that deflects frustrations to billionaires, lights straw men on fire, and spins false tales even about the recent past — including false tales about an American elite that has supposedly been indifferent to the effects of technology and trade on the American worker.

Contrary to many of the myths of American economic life, the best measures now indicate that American wages have grown, that compensation has increased with productivity, and that Americans’ most basic standard of living has increased. We have more stuff, we have easier lives, and we live in bigger houses. When it comes to the most basic things an economy can provide, America’s free-enterprise system has worked very, very well, and continues to work well.

But when it comes to government efforts to make change painless, to protect people from the consequences of their choices, or to block seismic changes from happening, the record is much worse. To hear many populists talk, you’d think that American elites simply opened our nation to free trade and let the chips fall where they would. That’s completely wrong. Here, for example, is the indispensable Scott Lincicome talking about the multi-generational effort to preserve the American steel industry:

[The steel industry’s] companies and workers since the 1970s have arguably received more government assistance than any industry in the country. This includes hundreds of trade remedy measures and other import restrictions; tens of billions of dollars in state, local and federal subsidies and bailouts; exemptions from environmental regulations; special “Buy American” rules; federal pension benefit guarantees; and even its own caucus in Congress. The result: dramatic historical declines in employment and capitalization, numerous bankruptcies, and, course, continued demands for even more government protection.

And, he says, “let’s not forget about the auto bailouts . . . the alternative energy subsidies, the manufacturing tax credits, the ExIm Bank loans, procurement preferences like Buy American and Davis-Bacon, the Jones Act and the PVSA, and the billions of other taxpayer dollars that the United States has doled out to ‘blue collar’ industries and workers over the last few decades at the federal level alone.”

It turns out that “elites” aren’t indifferent after all. But they cannot hold back change. They cannot turn back the clock. And they cannot create government policies that alleviate the effects of a different change, one far more important than any trade policy, any worker-retraining initiative, or immigration restriction. Look at the chart of non-marital births below:

Beginning in the 1960s, America’s out-of-wedlock birth rate began rising, and continued to rise through good economic times and bad, Democratic administrations and Republican ones. People made choices. A prosperous nation became more libertine. And libertinism carries its own costs. Prudent Americans see those costs and change their behavior. Foolish Americans turn to government and demand that it ameliorate the economic and psychic consequences of their own choices.

And that brings us to the real challenge in America, which is not economic, nor the product of globalist elites and their international order. It’s the spiritual crisis that is taking American lives through deaths of despair even in a time of peace and prosperity. Ever since Scott Winship posted the tweet below, the product of research by Senator Mike Lee’s invaluable Social Capital Project, I’ve been haunted by what the data reveal:

We were not created to be alone. And while economics can make family life more or less stressful, we cannot blame economics for the cultural choice to break the bonds of matrimony. Marriage cultures thrived in far-more-challenging economic times than those enjoyed by post-war America.

None of this is to say that public policy is irrelevant to our lives, that it can’t help or hurt. There are forms of public policy that are so draconian and oppressive they can render human effort far less relevant to human outcomes. Jim Crow loomed over even the most diligent African-American family. Socialism creates entire systems of repression.

Conservatives should not neglect public policy, but they must put it in its proper place when they use their bully pulpits. All too often, the modern conversation waves at culture before quickly moving on to less important things. The politicization of everything has led Americans to overvalue politics and misdirect their rage accordingly.

Given what we know about the power of individual choice, the response to this populist moment shouldn’t be acquiescence but resistance. The crowd clamors for scapegoats for its own sins, and populist leaders are all too eager to provide them. Conservatives should restrain the crowd, preserve liberty, and speak the fundamental truth: “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the governance of any other.”

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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