Over the past few days, a very interesting and worthwhile debate has arisen among several thoughtful conservatives about growth, work, and prosperity. The occasion for it has been Oren Cass’s new book, The Once and Future Worker, and its argument that work, and not just wealth, is a vital measure of well-being, and one on which our society has been falling short.
Beyond the book itself, Cass has made his case in an excerpt in The American Interest and an essay in The Atlantic. In each case, he makes an argument for putting relatively more value and emphasis on production and work and therefore relatively less on consumption and growth than we have tended to do in recent decades. The latter point is what has drawn criticism on the right, particularly from Michael Strain and James Pethokoukis. Both rise to the defense of growth as an absolutely essential precondition not only for consumption or even prosperity but for the well-being of the nation as a whole and each of its citizens and even for, well, work.
In his Bloomberg column, Strain stresses this general point, defending an emphasis on growth against attacks from the left and the right. He lumps together Cass’s case with those of assorted populists and argues that they understate the importance of growth and that, among other things, “the hot U.S. economy is the best jobs program available for lower-wage and vulnerable workers.”
Pethokoukis, in his column at The Week, focuses on Cass’s book in particular and suggests that criticism of the right’s emphasis on growth ultimately relies on an incoherent set of arguments about immigration, automation, and trade. “Neither jobs nor the communities they’re located in are protected over the long run if shielding them from globalization and technological advance means an uncompetitive private sector that eventually sheds workers or doesn’t expand as much as it would have otherwise,” he concludes.
It’s hard to argue with these critics’ bottom line. But I don’t actually think Cass does argue with it. “While growth is necessary to a prosperous society, it is not sufficient,” Cass argues in his book. “Not all growth is equally beneficial, and the policy choices that yield the most immediate short-term growth don’t necessarily prepare the ground for sustained economic and social progress.” That’s pretty hard to disagree with too, and I don’t think Strain and Pethokoukis do disagree with it.
So what’s the dispute about? Some of it is surely about a number of particular economic claims regarding which they differ. I probably fall closer to Pethokoukis’s views about automation, for instance, though I’m certainly closer to Cass on immigration. But I think the core of the debate is actually about distinguishing means and ends in our political life.
It seems to me that Cass’s critics take him to be making an economic argument when he is making a political-economy argument, and in our time we have basically forgotten the difference. Or to put the point a little differently: Cass is not exactly arguing that we over-value growth, he is arguing that we over-value economics. His book is a kind of argument against an overly materialistic politics, and is rooted in a fundamentally social conservatism, broadly understood, that sees markets and even prosperity itself as means and not ends. The ends are supplied by an idea of human flourishing rooted in the nature of the human person as understood by the great traditions of our civilization, and therefore focused on family, community, religion, work, and country.
I would note, as an aside, that the same is true of another very important conservative policy book published recently—Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War?. Like Cass, Salam is willing and able to confront his critics on their chosen ground, arguing about the effect of low-skill immigration on wages or the philosophical grounds of restrictions on migration. But he is ultimately making an argument rooted in the view that human beings flourish in communities and nations, and that the particular nature of our sociality has to bear on how we think about immigration. He, too, reaches for the deepest ground of disagreement between the left and right, which is anthropological and sociological before it is economic. And so he too seems to have baffled, in the best sense, some of the people he’s seeking to argue with.
To be clear, Cass doesn’t put it quite like this in his book, and so it is entirely possible that I’m reading my own views into his some. But it seems to me at least implicit in the “working hypothesis” that he repeatedly puts at the center of his argument: “that a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity, and should be the central focus of public policy.”
One implication of this hypothesis is that, as Cass argues, growth and work require each other. “Growth is itself an emergent property of a healthy society,” he writes, “insofar as the goal is to maximize long-term growth, all segments of society must remain engaged in a broad-based economy.” Growth is a condition of flourishing, but flourishing is a condition of growth.
But another implication, particularly if work itself is only part of a larger picture of a flourishing life, is that we have to constantly strive to remember that economic growth is a means, not an end. Strain and Pethokoukis both argue, very reasonably, that without a growth-oriented economics we can’t have the rest of what Cass wants. But that is another way of saying that growth is a necessary prerequisite, and so should be understood as very important but not more important than what it makes possible. So when we confront a public-policy choice, we need to value growth properly as a precondition for what we are trying to achieve, but we can’t pursue it at the cost of what we’re trying to achieve.
This is not a controversial view in the abstract. The question is how it ought to be put into effect in particular instances, and that is really what Cass’s book is ultimately about. His critics aren’t asserting an absolute fealty to growth at all costs, and Cass isn’t accusing them of doing that. In fact, in tempering his criticism of Cass, Strain makes exactly this point, writing:
To their credit, the populist critics of a growth-oriented public policy often acknowledge that the U.S. does pursue programs that reduce the economy’s rate of growth by impairing the functioning of the market through, for example, taxing higher-income Americans in order to fund safety-net programs. But that acknowledgment serves to make their critiques — and their general posture toward economic growth — even harder to understand.
But it seems to me that this should make them easier to understand. They are arguing for a different emphasis, not for a different universe. And the practical significance of that different emphasis lies for Cass in the way it would shape some concrete policy judgments. That is why his book makes some far-reaching theoretical claims, critiquing some foundational assumptions of our approach to economic policy, but then concludes in fairly modest proposed policy reforms—which neither of his interlocutors has really taken up in their critiques.
There is often something unsatisfying about a radical conceptual case that points to a moderate policy prescription. But it seems to me that this is actually what statesmanship normally implies in a reasonably functional free society. We don’t generally disagree about the most fundamental premises of our politics, we disagree about how to prioritize them, and therefore where to place the emphasis when confronted with a particular challenge or choice.
That doesn’t mean that the disagreement between Cass and his conservative critics isn’t a serious dispute. They’re having an argument that conservatives have long needed to have, and they’re doing it in a serious, informed way that ought to leave us observers grateful. It’s a dispute that seems likely to end up advancing the view that growth can’t be a trump card in policy disputes but that it also shouldn’t be dismissed as some kind of codeword for elitism. It’s valuable to explicitly articulate both sides of that truism.
But to get beyond the truism, we have to apply it beyond abstract debates. This isn’t exactly an argument about whether growth matters (as everyone agrees it does) or whether sometimes other things have to matter more (which we all know is also true). It’s an argument about where to place the weight and emphasis when it comes to addressing particular problems and considering particular policy courses. Healthy policy debates have to be rooted in philosophical premises but directed to concrete realities. That ought to be the next phase of the debate Cass’s book has helped to spark.
— Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.