Chances are you didn’t get everything you wanted in 2020. If you’re a Donald Trump supporter, your man didn’t win. If you’re a progressive, you didn’t see the blue wave you were promised. Moderates got more polarization; libertarian candidates barely got anything. But as divided as we are, it remains true that federal, state and local policymakers can find common ground — willingness being key — and give voters more of what they want.
The trick is to find an agenda that appeals to all of these sensibilities. Believe it or not, one exists.
Let’s call it the “equal liberty agenda” — policies aimed at giving everyone a more equal shot at America’s blessings. It addresses the progressive itch to root out inequality, the conservative ambition to rekindle the ideas of 1776 that made America great and most everyone’s desire for more freedom and dignity.
First, fight corporate welfare.
Each year, states and localities spend about $95 billion on corporate subsidies. Though some politicians may tell you otherwise, this money doesn’t benefit the communities that provide it. Instead, it privileges the wealthy and well connected at the expense of democratic and free market ideals, and encourages firms to curry favor with politicians instead of customers.
Government should promote the general welfare of all, not that of special interests. Our social safety net should catch people, not the failing firms that employ them. This isn’t just good government; it’s good economics. If states and localities mutually agreed to stop subsidizing private businesses, they’d be able to cut everyone’s taxes or increase funding for public services that benefit us all.
Second, eliminate regulations that contribute to economic inequality.
Not so long ago, proud progressives like Ralph Nader, Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy were enthusiastic deregulators. They understood that bad regulations protect firms from competition rather than consumers from harm. They saw regulations weaponized, for example, to keep entrepreneurs from getting businesses off the ground, to raise the costs of rival firms and even to facilitate price cartels.
Thanks to their resources and political organization, established firms have outsized influence over regulators and often gain the upper hand over consumers or public interest advocates. Though this phenomenon is well documented, some of the best evidence comes from the behavior of industry insiders themselves.
Go to any state capital in which occupational licensure is being debated. Nine times out of 10, those who push for the regulation are industry leaders — usually protecting their own positions — not consumer advocates. Licensure is ripe for reform. The research is clear that it raises prices, locks vulnerable people out of jobs and does little-to-nothing to increase service quality or safety.
Third, make the criminal justice reform debate about policy.
We know the names: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown. Their lives — like all lives — mattered. Moreover, their tragic stories do seem to fit a pattern. As The Washington Post’s Radley Balko put it in his exhaustive review of the evidence: “(W)e have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them.”
Can we acknowledge that the system is not working well while granting that the vast majority of officers are honest and decent? Then, we can move beyond the divisive and unhelpful debate over whether cops are good or bad people and focus on a constructive question: What needs to change?
Would it help to reduce the mountain of nonviolent crimes for which a person can be arrested? Don’t forget that the altercation with Eric Garner began over selling loose cigarettes. Would it help to demilitarize police forces? Or free officers from enforcing minor traffic violations or doing the jobs of social workers? Should we eliminate qualified immunity? Require body cameras? Move to more localized policing? Strike provisions in union contracts that protect truly bad cops? End civil asset forfeiture? Stop issuing “get out of jail free cards?”
Asking these questions shouldn’t be controversial. Conservatives in particular, with their well-placed worry about government overreach, should be asking them.
Most Americans can trace their intellectual heritage to the great liberal tradition that grew from the Enlightenment. It emphasized the inherent worth of every individual, a healthy skepticism of power and a belief in checks and balances.
We don’t agree on everything. That’s okay. But if we truly care about a better world, we can work together to improve it. An equal liberty agenda can do that.
Matthew Mitchell is a senior research fellow and director of the Equal Liberty Initiative with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He wrote this for Tribune News Service.
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