The dull, purblind folly of the very rich men; their greed and arrogance…and the corruption in business and politics, have tended to produce a very unhealthy condition of excitement and irritation in the popular mind which shows itself in the great increase in the socialistic propaganda.
Teddy Roosevelt, 1906
The Republican Party is the party of commerce and markets. Across generations, stretching back to an age before Republicans were organized under that name, Republicans have channeled the political will of ambitious tradesmen, merchants and professionals. Whatever else the party has come to represent or has represented during various periods, our understanding that commerce is the engine of a successful civilization has always been its core, its heart.
Republicans have forgotten what it means to protect that heart. Swamped beneath a hopeful, but sometimes disorienting tide of social and economic change we are confronting an accelerating world with a fear often dipping into paranoia. You can win an election on the power of paranoia, but it will not let you govern. Building a more relevant, more successful Republican Party which can thrive in these conditions begins with a fundamental refocus on a simple core value.
America best achieves its promise when all of us have a fair opportunity to develop, capitalize and reap the rewards of our talents and efforts in the marketplace. We do not guarantee outcomes, but we must leverage every ounce of our energy to pry open and hold open the gates of opportunity. Regaining our grip on these values amidst endless shiny distractions will help the party recalibrate the rest of its message and its policy agenda to fit America’s rapidly evolving needs.
A commitment to free markets comes with contradictions which constantly demand balance. Adam Smith himself repeatedly warned of the dangerous tendency of unrestrained markets to descend into monopoly, corrupt influence, and then collapse. Preserving the power of markets requires constant, careful regulation; never so much as to destroy the ability of participants to make free judgments and never so little that a few powerful people might pervert them entirely, destroying the capacity of those markets to reward merit and effort.
Markets do not survive under weak or inept government. The Republican Party was originally organized to thwart powerful interests who, unhindered by a government too weak and ineffectual to provide justice, violently stole the labor and resources of an enslaved people. It took the force of a muscular, determined central government to end slavery. A century later it took a muscular, determined central government to enforce the rights of the formerly enslaved to participate freely in markets.
That battle for justice has not ended and may never end. Republicans will not regain our balance until we recognize one essential reality – government is not our enemy and it not the enemy of markets.
Why are Americans so pessimistic about our future? The profits generated by our economy are higher than they have ever been. We are living through an unprecedented run of stock market success. Only a few years after a catastrophic economic collapse, unemployment is approaching Reagan-era lows. Yet, something about this environment has Americans on edge.
We are living through a wrenching economic transformation that has ended the middle class as we knew it, upset old notions of the purpose and rewards of employment, severely undermined the value of labor, and concentrated power, wealth and opportunity in fewer and fewer hands. Government has a critical role to play in adapting our society to this emerging reality, yet both Democrats and Republicans continue to peddle 20th century explanations and solutions while neither has any continuing relevance. Democrats are gaining ground, but only by being less frightening than Republicans. Neither party has built a persuasive agenda. Our political future is wide open, waiting for leaders who can deliver a compelling, hopeful, sensible vision.
Few today remember that Republicans were in the vanguard of every constructive effort to use government to protect the integrity of markets. A century ago President Taft signed the country’s first Federal law attempting to regulate child labor. In that era Republicans led the fight against lynching, supported women’s right to vote, pressed for Federal laws mandating equal pay for women, and passed the nation’s first conservation and environmental protection laws.
A generation ago it was a Republican President who created the Environmental Protection Agency. President Nixon also became the first President to propose replacing our complex welfare state bureaucracy with a Federal minimum income. He created new agencies to protect workers from dangerous and exploitative conditions. He came very close to passing a taxpayer-funded national health care plan that would have covered everyone.
The challenges we face today are in many ways unique, but the same commitment to limited, but intelligent government holds the key to solving them. A willingness to look honestly at the inconvenient realities around us combined with a careful refocus on core Republican values would yield new positions on these key issues and push the Republican Party back into national leadership for this generation:
Health care – Cutting edge technology and research-driven healthcare cannot be financed by bartering chickens for doctor visits. On the other hand, a centralized command economy will be a constant drag on innovation. What Republicans knew forty years ago, what a Republican Governor recognized in Massachusetts just a decade ago, and what Americans are increasingly coming to understand, is that there can be no free, just access to markets so long as a simple illness can destroy everything one has earned. Republicans must propose a simpler, less bureaucratic alternative to the Affordable Care Act which offers universal, private, tax-subsidized access to health care for all Americans.
Cultural values – A potent, persuasive, humane social conservatism is not based on religious sectarianism. It is premised on the notion that some values are too important to be commoditized. Capitalism is mankind’s greatest force for prosperity, but without constraints it will reduce every valuable thing to the price it can command in a marketplace. From parenthood, to health, to our most intimate values, social conservatism means placing intangible human values above profit.
Social conservatism based on the authoritarian imposition of sectarian religious values will fail and should fail. Social conservatism based on compassion, evidence, and the pursuit of humane values will be more modest in extent, but vastly more successful.
Safety net – A party of commerce is a party of work, struggle and achievement. Under the pressure of an increasingly automated economy, the basic shape of a successful career is changing. America today generates more profit than ever before with less demand for labor than ever before. For people who lack the family resources to support many years of fantastically expensive post-high school education, many years of career experimentation, and the economic jolts of often unplanned or unintended career changes, the rewards of this new economy are simply out of reach.
The purpose of the safety net is to hold open the doors of opportunity for everyone, regardless of poor luck, illness, or other disadvantage. Instead of demonizing the poor, we need to refocus our resources on addressing the greater investment required to access the bottom rungs of the economic ladder and reducing the bureaucracy that burdens the current system. A shift away from the welfare state toward a basic or minimum income, as first proposed by Nixon era Republicans, should be a priority.
Climate change and the environment – Climate change is real. It is driven by human carbon emissions. If ignored it promises a threat to civilization unmatched by any challenge we have ever confronted. Denial is a humiliating scandal that undermines our credibility on every other issue. Republicans should be on the leading edge of carbon reduction and climate mitigation strategies that preserve the influence of market forces and preserve the potential of carbon reduction technology to stimulate prosperity and employment.
America in the wider world – If markets bring freedom and prosperity, then those who would subvert markets with violence cannot be tolerated. In our era, no organized national military offers a meaningful challenge to our security. Our security and the continuing spread of our values abroad are most potently challenged by localized chaos. From disease, to terrorism to unrestrained immigration, it is chaos more than any organized deliberate enemy that threatens us.
America should use its influence to build a new series of international alliances with countries who share our values. Those alliances should aim to tackle the civilian challenges that so frequently drag us into military engagements. Image if the resources and energy we pour into the Peace Corps came anywhere close to what we devote to the military, and image that a force of that kind of were combined with the resources and talents of other free nations.
Immigration – Across our history one of the greatest drivers of our success is our constant influx of ambitious new immigrants. One of the more depressingly self-defeating themes of our history is our consistent fear and suspicion of these new arrivals. Our current immigration policy makes elective immigration to the US nearly impossible for almost everyone who desires it. That is costing us enormously.
Our counter-productive fear of the cultural changes these new migrants bring continues to hobble our efforts to incorporate these new neighbors and open the doors of opportunity to their contributions. Republicans, as the party of commerce, are the natural allies of immigrants. We must end our opposition to legalization and take the initiative on drawing up new, rational, enforceable laws that will make orderly, legal immigration a practical possibility for far more people from around the world.
Drug prohibition – Prohibition is a catastrophic failure which grows more expensive every day in terms of money, deaths, and political instability in neighboring countries. We must find a more intelligent way to limit the damage of drug addiction without a blanket prohibition.
Rationalizing the tax code – America imposes one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. When combined with state and local taxes many businesses face rates that approach half their earnings. Meanwhile, wealthy hedge fund managers who in many cases are involved in no productive activity can earn million dollar salaries while paying taxes on a capital gains rate, allowing them an effective tax rate often lower than middle-income workers.
Money we give in tax breaks to homeowners for their property taxes and mortgage interest, even on multiple homes, is significantly greater than what we spend on food stamps each year. Exceptions, exemptions, loopholes and their accompanying complexity are an invitation to mischief and a punishment to honest taxpayers. We have less need for lower taxes or higher taxes than for a clearer, simpler, more honest tax code.
Needless to say, none of these items are on currently the Republican policy agenda. Worse, it is entirely unclear what the Republican policy agenda actually consists of apart from opposition to a template of Democratic proposals and pandering to paranoids.
A garden must be tended. Republican hero Teddy Roosevelt, like generations of Republicans since, recognized that restraining the excesses and failures of capitalism is essential to preserving the power of markets. Commerce depends on competition, and competition is weakened when fewer and fewer of us are allowed in the ring. These policy shifts will be essential to a new generation of Republican dominance, but we cannot begin to put concrete reality behind any coherent, practical vision while clinging to the soft comfort of denial. Before any slate of potential policy goals can receive any useful treatment, Republicans must collectively gather the courage to participate in a world of facts.
When that happens, when Republicans rejoin the debate over America’s future with eyes wide open, the party will once again be positioned to lead the way toward a wealthier, freer, most just America. The way is open, at least for now, if we are ready to take it.
No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Ch. VIII