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Answering the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel

Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, whose work I generally like, has written a column in which she attacks a publication to which I contributed, Room to Grow. Most of her focus is on tax policy. She is a fierce critic of child tax credits, which Rob Stein, who authored the chapter on taxes, endorses.

Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru has written a response which is largely devoted to the matter of tax policy and child credits, and I commend it to you.

I thought it might be useful is to analyze two claims made by Strassel, one of which is that “The authors are clear that politics, not principle, needs to drive conservative policy.”

Really, now? Ms. Strassel need only have read the opening paragraph of the introductory essay (written by me) to refute this assertion. Here’s what it says (the italics are mine):

Policy is problem solving. It answers to principles and ideals, to a vision of the human good and the nature of society, to priorities and preferences; but at the end of the day it must also answer to real needs and concerns. And public policy today is clearly failing to address the problems that most trouble the American people.

If she had read only a bit further into the chapter, she would have stumbled across this:

conservatives in American politics need to understand constituents’ concerns, speak to those aspirations and worries, and help people see how applying conservative principles and deploying conservative policies could help make their lives better.

And this:

Conservatives today need to show Americans how the principles that led to successful solutions when applied to the problems of that era [the 1980s] can do the same when applied to the rather different problems of this one. The same principles applied to new problems will yield new solutions.

The point of Room to Grow–which is explicitly stated in the book–is to (a) elucidate how a conservative vision of government could speak to today’s public concerns; (b) suggest how such a vision would translate into concrete policy reforms; and (c) explain how that vision and those reforms embody the spirit of our constitutional system. That hardly amounts to arguing that principles need not drive conservative policy. In fact, it amounts to the opposite.

We of course take political realities into account, as any sane person, and certainly any true conservative, must; but that is done in order to make it more, not less, likely that a conservative governing agenda actually be translated into law.

Now let me turn to Strassel’s claim that Room to Grow’s central premise is “That conservatives need to embrace government to better endear themselves to the ‘middle class.’”

This charge, like the first one, is wildly wrong. In the book’s second chapter, by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, he explains with some care why the proposals in the book would result in a government that “would no doubt be much smaller, more restrained, and less expensive than the one we have today.”

Yet Levin goes further than that. He also argues that conservatives should not be satisfied with accepting less of the same: the liberal welfare state at a lower cost. A bolder and more far-reaching goal is to change the underlying structure, the basic architecture, of much of the liberal welfare state, in order to advance the conservative vision of society.

The argument over which approach to tax cuts conservatives should take–tax credits for families v. cutting taxes on capital, and which are most appropriate at any given moment–is a serious and long-standing one. Ms. Strassel, an intelligent writer, is certainly able to present her substantive case. What is somewhat surprising is that her column so clearly misrepresents the book and the views of the various authors, to ascribe to them views and motivations that are quite obviously false.

She can do better than this, and usually she does.


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