The Corner

Economy & Business

The Worker and the Person

Over at the American Interest, Oren Cass has a great essay adapted from his enormously important forthcoming book The Once and Future Worker, set to be published next month.

I think Cass’s book stands with Reihan Salam’s new book on immigration in the very top ranks of sustained efforts to make some policy sense of the political realities of our era. It offers a vision of the sort of direction the American right should have taken in recent years if it were actually responsive to the challenges and pressures the country now confronts, rather than succumbing to a frantic cult of personality moved by every batty whim of a raving narcissist. And so it offers a vision of where the right could still go in the post-Trump era if we’re lucky.

Cass begins by questioning a foundational assumption of modern macroeconomics: that prosperity is best measured by the ability to consume. There is obviously some truth to this assumption, but is it a sufficient idea of prosperity in which to root our entire understanding of political economy? “What if people’s ability to produce matters more than how much they can consume?” he asks. What if work is important not just as a means to improve our purchasing power but also as a way to give us a role and a place and a purpose and a sense of responsibility and worth? That “ability to produce,” Cass notes, can’t be redistributed the way consumption power can, so if it matters that much then our public policy around work really needs to be rethought.

The labor market does more for us than provide us with money to spend. And this points to Cass’s core thesis: “a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy.”

This idea can reorient how we think about economic policy by putting our commitment to overall growth in some perspective, helping us see the connection between what we normally think of as economic issues and what we usually call social issues, and allowing for some accommodations between our political camps that now seem out of reach. It can help us think differently about regulation, education, immigration, trade, and labor relations, among other crucial questions — charting a course that isn’t quite where either party has been in recent decades.

It can also help us see through some of the more dangerous policy temptations of our era. Cass ably takes apart the case for a universal basic income, for instance, noting that if the economy is not just a GDP machine, and if work is more than a necessary evil, then a UBI would make our problems worse:

A basic income would be entirely unresponsive to the nation’s challenges; indeed, the idea represents an explosive charge planted directly at the weakest points in society’s foundation. It would make work optional and render self-reliance moot; consumption would become an entitlement officially disconnected from production. A community in which people capable of making positive contributions are not expected to do so is unlikely to be one that thrives on any dimension in which productive contributions are needed.

Cass’s argument has something in it to make everyone uncomfortable. He proposes some significant departures from Republican orthodoxy in areas like taxes and wage subsidies while making a forceful case for markets. He counsels some populist moves on immigration and trade while criticizing the way the Trump administration has often approached those questions. And he eviscerates the Left’s claims to represent the interests of workers in our economy even as he criticizes the right for ignoring those interests.

Ideas that make us uncomfortable are exactly the sorts of ideas we all now need to confront, so that we can at least consider how the political earthquakes of the last few years ought to alter our perspectives. Just about everyone in our politics has found ways to treat those earthquakes as confirming what they (that is, we) believed before. Some have done this by attributing to Donald Trump various sophisticated views about nationalism or foreign or domestic policy — a notion that can only be sustained if you make sure to never actually listen to Trump try to talk about those policy matters, or about anything else. Others have done it by treating the politics of the last couple of years as a mere aberration soon to be remedied, or as just proof of the degeneracy of the other side of our politics. So actually trying to confront a coherent policy vision that takes these earthquakes seriously and gestures toward ideas outside the comfort zone of our politics is helpful.

In fact, I left Cass’s book, and his American Interest essay previewing it, wondering if his ideas actually point beyond his own comfort zone — and so if he might be underselling them. Cass treats his core insight as a different way to think about economic policy. But I think it’s more like an assertion of the limitations of economic policy, and economic thinking.

As Cass notes, an emphasis on consumption is at the heart of modern capitalism. It was Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, who argued that “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.” But Smith was contrasting such a consumer focus with a focus not on workers but on what we now would call corporations — or at least on the owners of manufacturing and trading companies. He was suggesting a more constructive way to think about how to increase overall national wealth. Cass is proposing something else. He wants to focus economic policy on the interest of the citizen in contributing and producing something, not just on the interest of the citizen in deriving and consuming something. In other words, he wants us to understand that the participants in our economy are whole human persons who want to belong and participate, who need to be needed, who strive to be moved by their obligations and not just their appetites, who play key roles in families and communities, and who care about their neighbors and their cities and their states and their country.

That’s not so much a healthier way to orient economic policy as a healthier perspective on society that can help us keep economics in its place. It implies a politics rooted in a kind of social conservatism, broadly understood, that sees markets and even prosperity as means and not ends. The end is supplied by an idea of human flourishing rooted in the nature of the human person as understood by the great traditions of our civilization.

Maybe that goes further than Cass intends. But it’s what his important new book suggests to this reader. This is a book you’re not going to want to miss.

Yuval Levin — Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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