I think when the robot historians write the story of late empire America, one of the great villains will be Jack Kemp. It was Kemp who “figured out” that conservatives had to find some way to counter the Progressive monopoly on altruism in the public consciousness. Otherwise, elections would continue to turn on who most cares about the weakest, rather than who has the best ideas.
That sounded fine in terms of politics, but philosophically it conceded a critical point. That is, the state is responsible for the care and feeding of the citizenry. If someone is poor, it is the duty of politicians to figure out why and fashion a remedy for it. Kemp’s happy warrior dance is what eventually led to the Bush variant of “Compassionate Conservatism.” When Bush said, “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, Government has got to move”, he was channeling Jack Kemp.
The “conservatism” of Jack Kemp was decoupled from the traditional conservatism of America. Instead of being a cultural and philosophical counter to Public Protestantism, it was a different implementation of American Progressivism. The New Right accepted the fundamentals of the Left, particularly innate egalitarianism, they just had different ways to achieve the desired results.
The New Right offered tax incentives as an alternative to the bureaucratic and sclerotic welfare systems of the Left. Instead of building and maintaining public housing stocks, the New Right would create the ownership society. Of course, when it comes to education, the New Right offered vouchers and school choice as an alternative to throwing money at the union dominated public schools.
The trouble with all of this is it accepts a set of assumptions that are at odds with reality. Fundamentally, the Old Right differed from the Left on the issue of egalitarianism. The Right argued that people are born with a range of skills, talents and dispositions. There is a natural hierarchy within the human family and social arrangements must comport with the reality.
In contrast, the New Right signed onto the idea Reagan so cleverly explained in his famous A Time For Choosing speech fifty years ago. They “can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without automatically coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one.” While the Left sees the invisible hand of avarice, the New Right sees a bug in the code of social policy.
This denial of biological reality is most evident with school choice. The assumption underlying these proposals is that every parent wants their kid to grow up to be a college educated high achiever in a self-actualizing profession. In reality, the degree of parental concern for offspring follows the normal distribution that tracks closely with economic condition.
Anyone who has spent time with the poor understands something that the social planners never grasp. Poor people make poor decisions. That’s why they are poor. They have above average time preferences, which is mostly due to a lower IQ and poor impulse control.
The drug dealer did not end up on parole because he thought things through and weighed the risks against the gains. Selling weed just seemed like a good way to get money at the time. He wanted money so he could buy stuff like a car and maybe a flat screen. Tomorrow is another country that he never intends to visit. It’s all about the here and now.
It’s why school choice programs don’t have a lot of supporting data behind them. This study linked on Marginal Revolution is the latest example debunking the claims of school choice. It turns out that there’s not a whole bunch of talented kids locked into poor schools after all. It’s bad students that make bad schools, not the other way around. Vouchers, at best, let middle-class whites move their kids further away from the poor kids.
Politicians of the New Right are so enamored with these programs, despite their dubious value, because of what Jack Kemp saw forty years ago. On the one hand, they promise the same results that naturally flow from freedom of association, which appeals to their base voters. On the other hand, everyone gets to pretend to care about the poor, thus stealing a cudgel from the Left.
The result over the last three decades has been a metastasizing welfare state that is served by an army of technocrats from both sides. Per capita federal spending, adjusted for inflation, has doubled since the 1980’s because one party pushes compassionate liberalism while the other side pushes compassionate conservatism. Traditional America has been crushed between the jaws of this vice.