Last week, Senator Mitt Romney proposed an unexpectedly ambitious plan to reform America’s child allowance programs. Combining and expanding existing welfare benefits, the Romney plan would help parents by providing $350 a month for kids five and under, and $250 a month for kids up to 17. It’s also important to note that the proposal phases out for large, wealthy families such as Romney’s. After the announcement, the plan received praise from sources as varied as the centrist Niskanen Center and the leftist People’s Policy Project, both of which argued that the Romney plan improves upon President Biden’s original proposal. The plan’s most ardent critics came from the right, with the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) calling the allowance “a move in the wrong direction.”
In and of itself, the Romney plan is a sensible, moderate and well-crafted proposal. AEI’s opposition has little to do with substance, and much to do with the conservative establishment’s tendency to fetishize markets and demonize welfare spending. But Romney’s proposal also signifies a major paradigm shift in American politics: the gradual abandonment of laissez-faire economics, the increasing importance of family policy and the rise of a strange post-liberal coalition.
Let us start with the many reasons why conservatives and progressives may — and should — support Romney’s plan. To rightists, Romney offers a piece of legislation that is resolutely pro-family, one that will reduce the current system’s penalties for marriage and reward stay-at-home parents. As for leftists, the proposal’s progressive structure would reduce child poverty, help middle-class households and do away with the most regressive programs currently in place. Pro-family and anti-poverty, socially conservative and economically progressive, the Romney plan brings together a peculiar coalition of religious traditionalists and welfare spending enthusiasts.
Both these factions share a certain disdain for the market-friendly, neoliberal consensus that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush personify equally. For some, free markets erode traditional structures, atomize communities and promote an absurd consumerist ethos. For others, markets exacerbate inequalities, deprive the disadvantaged of opportunities and facilitate the corruption of our political system. In both cases, unchaperoned capitalism shoulders the bulk of the blame, and welfare spending represents a logical solution — for instance, while some may have thought that President Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package would lead to a Tea Party-style backlash, a recent CBS News poll found that 79 percent of Americans either support it or find it insufficiently ambitious.
In other words, this opposition to free market capitalism transcends partisan boundaries. Post-liberal conservatives and leftists may not agree on cultural questions, but they all support some degree of protectionism, higher taxes on the wealthy, generous family policies, redistributive measures and child allowances, as well as regulations on Big Tech and Wall Street.
More broadly, this coalition of free market sceptics aspires to reward those whose work is ignored by conventional economic models — stay-at-home parents and others who produce unquantifiable value for society at large. To move beyond standard measures of economic prosperity, to create a community-focused economy, to reward those who work in the shadows, all are ideas that Americans increasingly accept. On the Democratic Party’s primary stage, for instance, Andrew Yang argued that we should move beyond macroeconomic indicators that fail to account for the unpaid work that families and communities do every day — an idea that would have seemed radical 15 years ago.
Naturally, these shared goals are not enough to form a coherent political party — we can hardly imagine traditionalists building a comprehensive platform with pro-choice activists. Of course, if American conservatives stopped obsessing over gender-neutral bathrooms and started thinking about broader cultural trends, they might realize that welfare spending is negatively correlated with both divorce rates and abortion rates. They might realize that those who genuinely want to preserve the place of marriage in American life would be better served by Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism than by the Republican Party’s lip service. Surprisingly enough, giving people access to healthcare does more to advance the cause of family-formation than anti-trans rhetoric.
Nevertheless, in a country that has become more polarized than ever, this kind of non-partisan synthesis — an alliance between leftists and socially conservative critics of free market capitalism — is unlikely to emerge. But this need not matter so long as both groups reshape the ideological makeup of their respective parties, as they have begun to do.
On the right, think tanks such as American Compass are fighting against what they call the conservative establishment’s “market fundamentalism.” On the left, the likes of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have changed the Democratic Party’s conversation on issues such as healthcare, taxes and environmental policy.
This opposition to laissez-faire economics may prove temporary. But if proposals such as Romney’s child allowance came to dominate America’s national conversation, the country would be able to move — one policy at a time — beyond a status quo wherein family formation and community building bow down to the invisible hand.
MATHIS BITTON is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles college. His column, titled ‘Through the looking glass’ runs every other Wednesday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.