Americas high-earners are more likely to be married. Its low-earners are not: There is a reason why the Julia in President Obamas Life of Julia slideshow got what she needed from President Obamas policies at every point in her life (and never needed anyone else for anything else). As Peter Lawler has pointed out, the combination of weak social networks and the responsibility of raising children tends to incline voters toward statist policies. In the 2013 Virginia governors races, the unmarried (men as well as women) voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate. New Jerseys exit poll did not include a question about marital status, but looking at Chris Christies performance among younger cohorts would indicate he did better than his Virginia Republican counterpart.
The problem is not just atomization. The problem is also how our political system is responding to that atomization. The center-left promises to tax someone else and buy security for those who feel vulnerable. The center-right is seen as offering a different politics of atomization, through the practice of cutting taxes on someone else (the job creators) and then allowing the benefits to flow to the rest of society.
Somewhat shrewder conservatives sharpen the point by suggesting that those who arent currently rich could become those high-earners who built that. There is some value in that latter framing, but it doesnt get at the central problem with our current center-right politics (both Tea Party and Republican establishment). It is not relational enough. The advantage of the center-left is that, even though they might overtax you, might mess up the health care websites, and generally boss you around, they wont leave you on your own. The conservative response is to promise that higher growth through lower taxes (usually on high-earners) will leave everyone better off in the end. Their target audience is left wondering if they will see any of the benefits of this speculative economic growth. Growth and investment need to be part of the message, but they cannot be the whole message.
Atomization and vulnerability are not the preferred condition for all single people. A recent College Republican report pointed out that 20 percent of young people have reported putting off marriage because of weak economic conditions. Third Way found that declining earnings among low-skilled males tended to coincide with the especially steep decline in marriage rates among the low-skill sector of the population.
Conservatives can offer an agenda that takes these trends into account, although reversing them is probably outside the scope of policy. Growth has to be part of that agenda. The economist Robert Stein argues that, given our current spending path and the aging of our society, we are on the path to having federal spending going up to 30 percent34 percent of GDP (it was 23 percent in 2012). Government of this size will not be funded with merely tax increases on the rich. The nonrich will pay not only in higher taxes but also in lower growth as the government consumes more and more of the economy.
But a politics of growth must be paired with a politics of solidarity. A limited government politics has to work, not only in averting a still-speculative high-tax/low-growth future; it has to work in addressing the concerns of the vulnerable in the here and now. Government policy cannot knit civic institutions for people with weakened social networks, but policy can make it easier for the most vulnerable to improve their own lives. Government policy can make working and raising children a better deal.
A (relatively) lower tax burden does not have to primarily take the form of large tax cuts on high-earners. The argument for greater growth might seem more plausible if all the direct benefits were not going to high-earners. Robert Steins tax plan would sharply cut taxes on working parents at or under the median income and cut taxes on investment. It would raise the effective tax rates on some childless high-earners, but it would keep the top marginal tax rate at thirty-five percent rather than the current 39.9 percent. This tax system would be more pro-growth and pro-parent than the one we have now and it would offer parents (and prospective parents) the promise of greater take-home pay combined with the hope of greater job growth.
Both James Capretta and Avik Roy have suggested ways of extending health insurance to the struggling (and extend a sense of security to those who fear the loss of employer-provided health insurance) at far less cost than Obamacare. Market-oriented reforms could encourage the expansion of low-cost health care options that would make routine health care both cheaper and more widely available. Senator Mike Lee has suggested changing higher education accreditation to make it easier for workers to gain the skills they need more quickly and cheaply.
Conservatives cant win as just another party of government. They can always be outbid. But the bidding of the statist left has its own costs. Those costs are only bearable if the alternative seems like being left entirely on your own. Conservatives can offer a reasonable balance. They can offer a tax system that makes it easier to form a family and find a job rather than crushing the economy to pay for endless government promises. Conservatives can offer protection from catastrophic medical bills and a more productive health care system as opposed to the cost and chaos of Obamacare. Conservatives can make it easier for workers to gain skill and make the most of their talents. Instead of discarding limited government politics, conservatives can apply limited government politics to the lives of people near the earnings median.