Will Wilkinson on Rick Santorum’s Economic Freedom Agenda, Part II: The Return

Will Wilkinson kindly replied to my post on his post on Rick Santorum. I spent virtually no time talking about Santorum in my post, as I was more interested in the question of how to craft policy once we are already infringing private economic liberties. Will interpreted my post as a defense of Santorum’s view of economic freedom. Like Will, however, I find Santorum’s view of economic freedom problematic. Indeed, I’d actually endorse the following from Will’s post:

Reihan and I are incredibly close to each other on the nature and value of economic freedom. Our disagreement I think is largely confined to the question of how to understand the implications of the platitude that the rules of the game shape our choices. I don’t think you can get from there to a defense of child tax credits on grounds of anything resembling economic freedom. Maybe pro-natal policies are pro-growth. But do you think we’d be freer economically if we levied heavy excise taxes on birth control?

That is, I am more favorably disposed towards policy measures designed to reduce the economic burden associated with child-rearing because I see these measures as pro-growth, not because I see them as freedom-enhancing as such.

Will believes that the kind of human capital strategy I have in mind is at risk of collapsing into an argument from eugenics. You won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t agree, but my position is certainly not that Will’s view is ridiculous. Rather, it is that a wide array of social and economic regulations that are seen as uncontroversial are vulnerable to the same charge. For more on this subject, I recommend checking out the work of Thomas C. Leonard, a research scholar based at Princeton.

Achieving the kind of neutrality Will has in mind is, in my view, extremely difficult if not impossible. This is an argumentative strategy that I often pursue, e.g., in the context of the DREAM Act, I spent a lot of time making an argument many of my interlocutors found slippery: First, I acknowledge the moral force of my critics’ argument (there really is a plausible moral cause for open borders); second, I shift to a different level of abstraction to argue that the democratic polity we live in is not likely to embrace this moral vision, bracketing the question of whether or not that is a good or bad thing (we’re going to have immigration restrictions one way or another or, in this case, we’re going to have meaningfully freedom-undermining restrictions on private economic liberties one way or another); third, I ask what course we should pursue in this third- or fourth- or fifty-thousandth-best world (think more rigorously about what a humanitarian immigration policy might entail, etc.).

I think it’s safe to say that Will places heavier emphasis on making morally compelling arguments, and he is less interested in my second level — in large part because he aims to actually change how people think about questions at that second level. My willingness to take the landscape at the second level as more or less given could be characterized as a cop-out. It could also just reflect the fact that I’m more interested in what happens at the third level, after we assume some aspect of the landscape is hard-to-change.

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

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