Today’s reformist conservative movement

by Ryan Streeter on June 1, 2013. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

In case you’ve missed it, be sure to read Ross Douthat’s recent post on the fundamentals of reformist conservatism.

Ross does a nice job of distilling how various thought leaders, when considered together as a group, give us an outline of what a shared conservative reform agenda would look like. The post is especially useful as a rich source of links to the key pieces at the heart of this “movement.”

Ross writes that:

[Reformist conservatism is] rooted in two major premises, which I would summarize as follows:

1) The core economic challenge facing the American experiment is not income inequality per se, but rather stratification and stagnation — weak mobility from the bottom of the income ladder and wage stagnation for the middle class. These challenges are bound up in a growing social crisis — a retreat from marriage, a weakening of religious and communal ties, a decline in workforce participation — that cannot be solved in Washington D.C. But economic and social policy can make a difference nonetheless, making family life more affordable, upward mobility more likely, and employment easier to find.

2) The existing welfare-state institutions we’ve inherited from the New Deal and the Great Society, however, often make these tasks harder rather than easier: Their exploding costs crowd out every other form of spending, require middle class tax increases and threaten to drag on economic growth; their tangled web of subsidies and credits and tax breaks often benefit the already-affluent and create perverse incentives for the poor, and the distortions created by the way they pay for health care, in particular, contribute mightily to the rising cost of health insurance and thus the stagnation of middle class incomes. So we don’t face a choice between streamlining the welfare state and making it more supportive of work and family; we should be doing both at once.

Proceeding from these premises, the basic “reform conservative” agenda looks something like this:

a. A tax reform that caps deductions and lowers rates, but also reduces the burden on working parents and the lower middle class, whether through an expanded child tax credit or some other means of reducing payroll tax liability. (Other measures that might improve the prospects of low-skilled men, ranging from a larger earned income tax credit to criminal justice reforms that reduce the incarceration rate, should also be part of the conversation.)

b. A repeal or revision of Obamacare that aims to ease us toward a system of near-universal catastrophic health insurance, and includes some kind of flat tax credit or voucher explicitly designed for that purpose.

c. A Medicare reform along the lines of the Wyden-Ryan premium support proposal, and a Social Security reform focused on means testing and extending work lives rather than a renewed push for private accounts.

d. An immigration reform that tilts much more toward Canadian-style recruitment of high-skilled workers, and that doesn’t necessarily seek to accelerate the pace of low-skilled immigration. (Any amnesty should follow the implementation of E-Verify rather than the other way around, guest worker programs should not be expanded, etc.)

e. A “market monetarist” monetary policy as an alternative both to further fiscal stimulus and to the tight money/fiscal austerity combination advanced by many Republicans today.

f. An attack not only on explicit subsidies for powerful incumbents (farm subsidies, etc.) but also other protections and implicit guarantees, in arenas ranging from copyright law to the problem of “Too Big To Fail.”

To bring things to a finer point, if reform conservatives were suddenly put in charge of the Congressional G.O.P.’s legislative agenda, the party would immediately advance Robert Stein’s plan for family-friendly tax reform and champion some version of James Capretta’s proposed replacement for Obamacare. It would continue to push hard for Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms, while setting more realistic targets for discretionary spending than his budget blueprints have done to date. It would try to revise the immigration reform bill along the lines suggested by Levin here, and failing that would probably push a more modest increase in high-skilled immigration, paired with more enforcement mechanisms, as an alternative to the comprehensive approach. It would become notably more sympathetic to the Brown-Vitter banking overhaul and to Derek Khanna-style proposals for copyright reform. And it would stop attacking Ben Bernanke for his supposed dovishness and recognize that if anything monetary policy has probably been too tight.

That’s the heart of it, but if you’ve got a few more minutes, read the whole thing.