Beware gurus with plans to reinvent conservatism

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Andrew Coyne

Whatever the merits of letting lobbyists, rather than consumers, run the economy, it seems a long way from the fulfilling and productive labour Oren Cass wants to encourage

So it is good to see conservative thinkers on both sides of the border attempting a rethink: resisting the populist temptation while trying to understand its appeal to conservative-minded voters; adapting conservative ideas to the issues of today, rather than those of the movement’s glory days, a generation ago.

But rethinking for the sake of rethinking is not necessarily progress. The core of modern conservatism — the conservation of the western liberal inheritance, notably its belief in a government that, however useful for certain purposes, remains within certain limits, obedient to custom, law and parliament and respectful of the rightful domains of the individual, the family, the society and the market — has endured over the centuries, through far worse cataclysms than we are currently experiencing.

Gurus waving drafts for a comprehensive reinvention of conservatism should therefore be treated with the skepticism for which conservatives are rightly noted. Consider, for example, Oren Cass, former policy adviser to Mitt Romney, whose book The Once and Future Worker and related writings have stirred up some excitement in conservative circles — including a gathering of Toronto conservatives last week, as reported in the National Post.

Cass has got hold of a big problem, the degraded state of the American working class — the subject of works by other conservative writers, such as J. D. Vance (Hillbilly Elegy) and, less successfully, Stephen Harper (Right Here Right Now) — which he is right to say should preoccupy his fellow conservatives.

This is not as counter-intuitive as the top-hatted caricature of conservatives might suggest. The same objective, after all, inspired Adam Smith: to make the focus of policy the welfare of the common people — The Wealth of Nations — rather than the glory of kings.

Cass is surely right to point out that, in America at least, things are not as rosy as the economic numbers might suggest: among other ills, he lists family breakdown, drug addiction, workforce detachment, rising suicide rates and, perhaps the most damning statistic of all, falling life expectancy.

And while Cass places too much emphasis on the economy, as opposed to the broader culture, in explaining these disparate phenomena, his “working hypothesis,” as he calls it, that the ability of people to support their families and themselves through productive work is the foundation, not only of economic prosperity, but of social stability — for the self-respect and sense of purpose it provides — is also inarguable, if not exactly original.

There is a school of conservative thought, indeed, that says work is of such critical importance that we should  make it a priority to reduce barriers to entry in the labour market: protections that might make life more secure for “insiders,” those already employed, but that do so at the expense of “outsiders,” those looking for work, so far as they make it harder or more expensive to take on new hires.

Cass shares much of this analysis (though his interest in workers currently shut out of labour markets seems not to extend to workers from other countries: he is an immigration restrictionist). Alas, he has a much broader and more ambitious agenda: namely, to overturn what he sees as a misguided emphasis in policy on consumption rather than production, a “truncated and ultimately self-undermining concept,” as he describes it, in which “workers have no standing.”

His prescription: not just “a shift in perspective from consumer to producer” but a broader rejection of the expert consensus of recent decades, that policy-makers should let markets work and redistribute the results, rather than interfere with market processes themselves. Cass wants very much to prevent markets from working, at least where this results in any loss of jobs.

As strange as it might seem to be obsessed with saving jobs at a time of 3.5 per cent unemployment, Cass’s contention that democratic governments have been obsessed with the consumer interest at the expense of producers is just plain bizarre. Most policy proposals, from whatever party, consist of some plot or other against consumers, for the benefit of this or that producer group — whose members, rather than have to persuade consumers to part with their money voluntarily, would prefer to be able to take it by force.

Rethinking for the sake of rethinking is not necessarily progress

More to the point, workers are also consumers. A policy of driving up the prices of basic consumer goods, whether by external tariffs or internal quotas — or, as in the case of supply management, some combination of the two — is hardly in the interests of the working families who would like to buy those goods. Nor is it in the interests of the workers producing the goods the first group of workers might have bought with the disposable income they might have had, were they not forced to pay the premium over market prices the government imposed in the name of protecting yet a third group of workers.

Protectionism, then, does not protect our workers against other countries’, nor even workers against consumers, though that is nearer the truth. In reality, it protects some Canadian workers against other Canadian workers. Which workers fall into which group is decided not by how hard either works or the quality or price of what they produce, but by which can most successfully lobby politicians. Whatever the merits of letting lobbyists, rather than consumers, run the economy, it seems a long way from the fulfilling and productive labour Cass wants to encourage.

The conflict Cass sees, between the interests of consumers and producers, is ultimately illusory. The best interests of workers — the only long-run guarantee of their employment — consists in making things consumers want at prices they are willing to pay. Yes, that means some jobs will be lost from time to time, and some gained, as consumer preferences shift. But if no one was ever allowed to change jobs we’d all still be working on the farm.

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