‘Reformocons’ Revisited

Are all conservatives who believe that the federal government has a role in ensuring that older Americans don’t fall into poverty sellouts? I don’t think that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that the entitlement programs we now use to protect older Americans from falling into economic hardship are well-suited to the job. In a recent Slate column, I briefly observed that reform conservatives “look at the goals of programs like Social Security and Medicare and then try to find better, fairer, more cost-effective ways of achieving them.” Because I was introducing readers to how a lot of conservatives actually think, I didn’t belabor the point. Unfortunately, this has led some critics (including John Hayward) to believe that when I talk about thinking through the goals of entitlement programs with an eye towards modernizing them, I’m really talking about just capitulating to liberalism. This is disappointing, as I believe that while the “New Democrats” really did represent an ideological challenge to traditional left-liberals, reform conservatives are, as I write in the piece, “garden-variety free-market conservatives,” who differ from other conservatives in pretty subtle ways.

Jim Pethokoukis has written a terrific post on reform conservatism in practice – indeed, Jim hits on exactly the example I’d choose to illustrate the reformocon approach. Andrew Biggs has called for transforming Social Security into a program that protects all older Americans, including those who’ve had low earnings throughout their working lives and patchy work histories, from poverty, yet which also improves work incentives. Over time, Biggs’s reform will lead middle- and upper-income Americans to rely more heavily on private savings to finance their retirement while encouraging them to delay retirement in the first place by cutting payroll taxes for older workers. The really impressive thing about Biggs’ approach is that it achieves core conservative goals (it rewards work, it puts the program on a fiscally sustainable footing) and it also does a better job of protecting older Americans than the Social Security status quo. 

Why does making these programs work better even matter? Isn’t the only important thing that we shrink government’s role, or get rid of it altogether? The trouble is that in a democracy, no political victories are permanent. That’s why it is important to advance reforms that will prove durable because they address the underlying problems that people actually care about. Obamacare, in my view, is a great example of a program that will not prove durable, because it doesn’t actually fix the worst aspects of our existing health system. If anything, it makes them worse. But if a reformed retirement security system does a far better job of serving the economic interests of older Americans, rich and poor alike, going back to old-school socialism isn’t going to be a terribly attractive prospect. Hayward seems to agree that there is place for a safety net. He writes that it’s possible to make the case against Big Government welfare programs “without demanding the summary abolition of every safety-net program.” That’s exactly what Biggs and others like him are trying to do. The difference is that Biggs takes this ball and runs with it: what would it take to build a better safety net that doesn’t trap people in dependency, and could we do it in a way that leaves everyone better off? 

Elsewhere in my column I write that while reform conservatives favor competition in education and health care, “they also insist that government has a big role to play in making sure that everyone, particularly the poor, can reap the benefits of competition.” Why must government play a role in guaranteeing that poor people benefit from education reform? Hayward correctly observes that Walmart does a terrific job of serving poor people without government help. Here’s the thing: the public sector near-monopoly over schooling is very firmly entrenched; it’s been in place for so long that people have a hard time imagining that things could be different. The fact that innovative entrepreneurship has made all kinds of consumer goods better and more accessible is seen (wrongly) as entirely irrelevant to education. It’s almost as though our education sector is a Soviet bloc country of its own. One strategy conservatives might pursue is to impose shock therapy: in one fell swoop, let’s give everyone a voucher and let the chips fall where they may. I’d prefer this strategy over the status quo. Even if voucherization would work better for some students than others at first, I’m convinced that it has the potential to drive improvements in the cost and quality of education that would eventually benefit everyone. Of course, much depends on how long this “at first” period lasts. Will we see visible negative effects for a few months? A few years? That doesn’t seem too implausible in light of the scale of the change we’re talking about. Therein lies the rub: there will be an election or two while this process goes on, and you can bet your political opponents will point to the downsides. This is why every existing voucher program is designed with protecting the interests of the most vulnerable students in mind. 

Right now, most voucher programs are of small scale, and they’ve tended to shift students from low-quality public schools to existing parochial or independent schools with spare capacity. We haven’t seen much in the way of new schools to serve voucher students. We have, however, seen a great deal of entry in the charter market, in part because charter-oriented reform has been embraced by a broader coalition and funding for charter schools is seen as more substantial and secure than support for voucher programs. Moreover, there is a broader network of institutions that incubate charters, that finance new models, etc. Moving from a world in which government-run schooling is the norm to one in which government’s role is primarily to provide regulatory oversight will take time, and it will require proof of concept, which we’re seeing now in cities like New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Part of moving from here to there is guaranteeing that all children, including those raised in chaotic families, get at least as good an education under this new system as they would under the status quo. Frankly, given the political obstacles, ensuring that they get at least as good an education is probably not enough — you have to deliver some meaningful improvement. Moreover, I’d say, and many others on the right would agree, that one of the virtues of a more market-oriented educational system is that it would better serve poor kids, provided those with the most difficult home lives had some additional help. This is what I mean by ensuring that everyone, particularly the poor, can reap the benefits of competition. The alternative is not a laissez-faire educational system. It’s continuing to live with the government-dominated educational system we have right now, as defenders of the status quo use fear-mongering to win political battle after political battle. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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