We know that the United States and most other developed nations are in deep trouble if we leave government policy on auto-pilot. And we know the painful day of reckoning will arrive even faster if we continue the Bush-Obama policies of expanding the burden of the public sector.
All this sounds very depressing, but the good news is that we know the types of policies that will solve the problem.
The bad news is that we often don’t do a very good job of convincing people of the changes that are needed.
Part of the answer is that libertarians and small-government conservatives are probably too utilitarian. Not in our hearts, but in the way we talk.
Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute addresses this problem in a column for the Washington Examiner.
…many who strongly believe in free enterprise steer clear of all public “moral” arguments. This is a mistake and a missed opportunity. A great deal of research shows that people from all walks of life demand a system that is morally legitimate, not just efficient. …Privately, free enterprise’s champions…celebrate capitalism because they believe that succeeding on merit, doing something meaningful, seeing the poor rise by their hard work and virtue, and having control over life are essential to happiness and fulfillment. But in public debate, conservatives often fall back on capitalism’s superiority to other systems just in terms of productivity and economic efficiency. …The dogged reliance on materialistic arguments is a gift to statists. It allows them to paint free enterprise advocates as selfish and motivated only by money. Those who would expand the government have successfully appropriated the language of morality for their own political ends; redistributionist policies, they have claimed to great effect, are fairer, kinder, and more virtuous. …Average Americans are thus too often left with two lousy choices in the current policy debates: the moral Left versus the materialistic Right. The public hears a heartfelt redistributionist argument from the Left that leads to the type of failed public policies all around us today. But sometimes it feels as if the alternative comes from morally bereft conservatives who were raised by wolves and don’t understand basic moral principles. …There just doesn’t seem to be a good alternative to the “statist quo,” and as a consequence, the country is slipping toward a system that few people actually like.
I think Brooks is correct. Most libertarians and conservatives are not motivated by GDP numbers. They believe in small government because it is morally sound (no government-imposed stealing) and fair (you don’t get rich without offering something of value).
During public policy debates, though, we rely on utilitarian arguments.
I offer myself as an example. When the flat tax became a big issue in the 1990s and I started giving lots of speeches about tax reform, I would make dry and technical arguments about marginal tax rates and capital formation. But I quickly learned that much of the support for the flat tax was motivated by a belief in a fair and moral system – no cronyism, treating everybody equally, ending corruption, shutting down loopholes, etc. So I modified my speeches and gave much more attention to the moral arguments.
That being said, there’s no silver bullet in public policy fights. We probably need a combination of morality and utilitarianism. And it’s obviously important to put things in terms ordinary people can understand. That, I believe, is what made Reagan so effective. And it’s what I try to do with this blog (albeit on a much more limited level).