Economic mobility and government activism

Michael Gerson wrote today about “the rhetoric of mobility” — in other words, the way liberals and conservatives talk about the issue of economic mobility. He finds the rhetoric of both sides, as the well views behind it, wanting.

Gerson’s piece is thoughtful, as usual. But it should be of concern to conservatives who worry that “reform conservatism,” a movement with which Gerson is associated, may to some extent represent a misguided threat to traditional, limited government conservatism.

Two passages stand out. First, Gerson writes:

The parties have backed into America’s most urgent domestic priority: resisting the development of a class-based society in which birth equals destiny. This division runs like an ugly, concrete wall across the American ideal.

On one side are the wealthy and educated, living in communities characterized by greater family stability, economic opportunity and neighborhood cohesion. On the other side is the working class, living in communities featuring economic stagnation, family instability and neighborhood breakdown.

The best advice for success? Be born on the right side of the wall. That is not a very American-sounding answer.

(Emphasis added)

I submit that it’s not very American-sounding, and certainly not conservative-sounding, to assume that the “best advice for success” is to “be born on the right side of the wall.”

Why isn’t the best advice for success to behave the way those on the right side of the wall tend to? In other words, take education seriously; don’t have children when you are still a child; don’t commit crimes; don’t abuse hard drugs; get married before having children; and once married, try hard to stay married.

What is the evidence that those on born on the wrong side of the wall but follow this advice are unlikely to succeed? What is the evidence that those born on the right side of the wall but ignore the advice are likely to?

Gerson doesn’t point to any. His fatalism is unpersuasive.

In the next paragraph, Gerson says this:

The entry-level commitment for Republicans in this debate is a recognition that equality of opportunity is not a natural state; it is a social and political achievement. Economic growth is important — but its benefits are shared only if people have the knowledge and human capital to succeed in a modern economy. This preparation requires active, effective, reform-oriented government at every level — and forbids an ideological appeal that is merely anti-government.

(Emphasis added)

Republicans (and conservatives) should indeed recognize the importance of people possessing the knowledge and human capital needed to succeed in a modern economy. Moreover, there are things the government can and should do to promote the supply of such knowledge and human capital. Foremost among them is improving education by encouraging, or at least not thwarting, school choice.

But it sounds like Gerson envisages a much more active role for government, including the feds. Keep in mind that much of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program was built on the idea of the federal government as supplier of knowledge and human capital. Head Start and the Job Corps are two examples, and not the worst. Government job training programs in general have been a staple of the liberal agenda for at least half a century.

Is an expansion of this agenda the kind of active, effective, reform-oriented government involvement what Gerson has in mind? I don’t know.

Regardless, I fear that if reform conservatism embraces the notion of government activism to promote the supply of human capital — and forbids appeals that are anti-government in the sense of expressing great skepticism about government’s ability to succeed in this endeavor — it will be unable to resist the pull towards a Great Society style agenda.