The Agenda

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

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

The Great Misdirection

The House Democrats are frustrated, very frustrated. They’ve gotten themselves entangled in procedural disputes with the Trump administration that no one particularly cares about and that might be litigated for a very long time. A Washington Post report over the weekend spelled out how stymied Democrats ... Read More

Australia’s Voters Reject Leftist Ideas

Hell hath no fury greater than left-wingers who lose an election in a surprise upset. Think Brexit in 2016. Think Trump’s victory the same year. Now add Australia. Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison shocked pollsters and pundits alike with his victory on Saturday, and the reaction has been brutal ... Read More
NR Webathon

We’ve Had Bill Barr’s Back

One of the more dismaying features of the national political debate lately is how casually and cynically Attorney General Bill Barr has been smeared. He is routinely compared to Roy Cohn on a cable-TV program that prides itself on assembling the most thoughtful and plugged-in political analysts and ... Read More
Film & TV

Game of Thrones: A Father’s Legacy Endures

Warning! If you don't want to read any spoilers from last night's series finale of Game of Thrones, stop reading. Right now. There is a lot to unpack about the Thrones finale, and I fully understand many of the criticisms I read on Twitter and elsewhere. Yes, the show was compressed. Yes, there were moments ... Read More

Cold Brew’s Insidious Hegemony

Soon, many parts of the United States will be unbearably hot. Texans and Arizonans will be able to bake cookies on their car dashboards; the garbage on the streets of New York will be especially pungent; Washington will not only figuratively be a swamp. And all across America, coffee consumers will turn their ... Read More

The Merit of Merit-Based Immigration

Having chain-migrated his way into the White House and a little bit of political power, Donald Trump’s son-in-law is shopping around an immigration plan. And if you can get past the hilarious juxtaposition of the words “merit-based” and “Jared Kushner,” it’s a pretty good one. As things stand, the ... Read More