In the last several months, I have debated some of the intellectual leaders of a group called the "national conservatives." I consider myself a conservative (on most issues, though I lean more libertarian). National conservatives are well meaning and make some very valid points about the things that are going in the wrong direction in America culturally and economically, especially in the post-COVID world under President Joe Biden.
Sometimes it really does feel like our country is decaying: Our government-run schools are rotten; there are more suicides, more drug overdoses; our border is out of control; our debt is growing exponentially; our basic First Amendment rights are under assault; our cities are starting to resemble third-world countries; and everything is more expensive. Biden, who pledged to be a unifier, is driving the country over a progressive cliff.
Need I go on?
But nat cons take their argument a step further and maintain that this squeeze on middle-class/blue-collar Americans predates Bidenomics, and America has experienced a 40-year secular decline of disappearing factories, income inequality, the decline of union power and shrinking wages.
There are several prominent Senate Republicans – including Marco Rubio of Florida, J.D. Vance of Ohio and Josh Hawley of Missouri, to name a few – who have dabbled in this movement.
They want more restraints on "big business" (such as through anti-trust enforcement and price controls on what industries can charge), more protectionist trade policies, tax policies that provide credits and deductions for having more children, restrictions on legal immigration, and even higher taxes on the rich. They are, in short, arguing for a more activist role of government for the supposed failures of the free market.
The nat cons inside and out of Congress seem to have forgotten the famous quip told by Ronald Reagan some 50 years ago: "The most frightening nine words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"
A weird thing is happening politically in Washington. This new wing of the GOP is adopting the declinist rhetoric of Sen. Bernie Sanders, saying that middle-class America has fallen behind over the last 40 years, and that all the economic gains have gone to the richest Americans and big corporations.
Except this argument about the last 40 years – the greatest period of wealth creation and technological advance in world history – is flat-out false. Actually, it may be hard to appreciate given the last three depressing years of COVID, lockdowns and then Bidenomics, but the last 40 years have been a golden age of prosperity for virtually every income group – including the middle class. Median family income reached $78,000 in 2020, which is $20,000 a year higher than it was in 1983. That's about a 35% after-inflation increase over the period.
Those income measures don't include the much wider availability of more non-cash benefits – such as health care coverage, more vacation, and 401k and other retirement benefits – that make middle-class families almost 50% better off than in the late 1970s. They don't take into account the cleaner air and water, the vast improvements in combating diseases such as cancer and heart disease, the superiority of the quality of products we buy today, and the fact that virtually all Americans now have a device in their pockets that puts the whole world and the entire Library of Congress at their fingertips – with access that is virtually free.
Even though it is true that money can't buy love or happiness or grace, the material well-being of the middle class and the poor is much more secure than in the supposed golden days of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. I would refer readers to a book I wrote with the late Julian Simon called "It's Getting Better All the Time" for a review of all the economic and financial advances for the middle class over the last 50 to 100 years. When Trump was president, the middle class made some of the fastest gains, with middle-class incomes rising by more than $6,000 in four short years.
What launched the more than $50 trillion in American wealth over the last four decades was an era of lower tax rates, freer trade, a stable dollar, declining union dominance, a vast expansion of right-to-work laws and a generous legal immigration process that allowed the U.S. to welcome more than 25 million talented immigrants who became Americans and expanded the pie for everyone.
I can understand why an avowed "Democratic Socialist" like Bernie Sanders might want to reject these realities.
What's scary is that we now have some conservative intellectuals, who should know better, telling us that we need more government restrictions on business, less immigration, more trade protectionism, more union power and even more redistributive tax policies. This would make America – and virtually all Americans – poorer.