The Republican Party’s best possible argument against government intervention in the economy is that it has negative unintended consequences — in particular, that it harms the vulnerable.
Of course, this isn’t usually the case — government programs, from Pell Grants to food stamps, have helped expand opportunity and lift millions of Americans out of poverty. But historically, Republicans have done better when they emphasized the adverse effects government programs could have on the poor, not the undue burdens they place on the rich.
This was how economist Milton Friedman, the libertarian icon and public intellectual who helped move public opinion to the right during the Reagan years, framed conservative economic policy proposals. “The fact is that programs that are labeled as being for the poor, for the needy, almost always have effects exactly the opposite of those their well-intentioned sponsors intend them to have,” he once said. The reason the Republican Party is in such dire straits is that it can no longer credibly deliver this message.
Consider President Obama’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $9 per hour. This is, from an economic perspective, a questionable proposal, as Christina Romer, a UC Berkeley economics professor and former chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued in Sunday’s New York Times. “It’s far from obvious what an increase would accomplish,” she wrote, calling a minimum-wage hike a “half-measure” and pointing out that there are far more effective anti-poverty measures available.
In other words, there are doubts among experts on both sides as to whether a $9 minimum wage will actually help the poor or at least as to whether it is the best way to do so. But do any voters seriously believe that the Republican Party opposes a minimum-wage increase because it cares about the well-being of low-skilled workers? Of course not. Republicans appear to only oppose a minimum-wage hike because they care about the well-being of managers and CEOs.
After all, this is a party whose presidential nominee derided 47 percent of Americans as moochers. This is a party whose House majority leader, Eric Cantor, tweeted last Labor Day, “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” (As Paul Krugman noted, “on a day set aside to honor workers, all Mr. Cantor could bring himself to do was praise their bosses.”) The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which effectively speaks for the party’s business and financial wing, has a long-running view that taxes should be decreased on the wealthy and raised on the poor and lower-middle class, whom it has called “lucky duckies” because of their lower tax burden. It’s clear to voters that the Republicans don’t oppose a minimum-wage hike because they believe they are protecting the poor from a well-intentioned but harmful regulation.
To be clear, though I share Romer’s caution, I don’t have a strong position as to whether Obama’s proposed minimum-wage hike is sound policy. But it is a sweeping proposal, one that would affect millions of Americans, and it deserves, at the very least, careful scrutiny from an intelligent center-right party. Instead, it is being stonewalled by an insular, far-right party that refuses to offer any alternatives. And our democracy suffers for it.
The minimum-wage debate — which I think Republicans are likely to lose in the long run — is emblematic of a need for the Republican Party to adopt a more populist message through changes in style and substance. Instead of talking about how a minimum-wage hike would harm heroic job-creators, they should focus on the very real risk that it will increase unemployment rates for low-skilled workers by artificially raising the cost of labor. Of course, for this argument to be credible, it would need to be delivered in the context of a broader, genuinely populist conservative agenda, like a more family-friendly tax policy, an expanded child tax credit and a less Wall Street-friendly economic regime.
Our parties exist to check one another’s excesses. Friedman was at least partially right that for all progressivism’s good intentions, it sometimes backs economic policies that have harmful, unintended consequences. The Republican Party is currently not a serious party. But it has in the past and can in the future perform the essential function of checking liberal over-reach. Unfortunately, if its response to the minimum-wage debate is any indication, this won’t happen anytime soon.