I was jolted by the familiar echo, reading Chris Arnade’s “Cops and Teachers,” of an argument I’ve made a thousand times. It was an obviously conservative point, turned suddenly into a refutation of a popular conservative stance.

Speaking in the context of safety-net policy, I often try to distinguish between policies that maintain households in poverty and ones that might help to move them out of it. We can ensure that most people’s basic needs are met through $1 trillion in annual mean-tested transfers and benefits each year, but if another $1 trillion is required the next year, and every year thereafter, we are treading water at best. While some argue that we have succeeded marvelously at lifting nearly everyone above the “consumption poverty line,” and point to rising household incomes “after taxes and transfers,” I believe we should focus on whether our trajectory moves us away from such dependence; on that count we are failing.

Chris makes a similar argument, but directs it at the aggressive model of policing that conservatives proudly note has led to dramatic reductions in urban crime. While this is true, he says, the system has “failed to build locally run institutions that serves the needs and wants of residents. That was never in the cards. Giving poor and working class communities true power, by respecting their dignity, or agency, isn’t how the wealthy and elites view them. They are a problem to be dealt with.”

Indeed, in a way the suppression of crime through aggressive policing and incarceration is the conservative parallel to the liberal affection for reducing poverty through redistribution. Technically speaking, it works. And yet, it not only fails to address the underlying dysfunctions, it has a tendency to compound them and make more likely their transmission to the next generation.

Consider the dire warnings that “broken windows” advocates issue whenever less aggressive tactics are proposed; or the predictions of imminent lawlessness made at the prospect of “deincarceration.” Look at the “see, we told you so” tone adopted as crime rates have surged in cities where police have stepped back. On one hand, they are likely right. On the other hand, they are right in the same way welfare enthusiasts are right when they warn that any cut to this or that program will deprive this or that group. Such arguments are not really endorsements of the programs so much as admissions of how little progress has been made.

What is the right conclusion to draw if several decades of aggressive policing have yielded impressive crime statistics for neighborhoods that are tinderboxes, still necessitating the imprisonment of a substantial share of their young male populations and liable to return to their pre-reform levels of crime if enforcement lets up? In one sense, yes, “it works.” In another, “it isn’t working.” The point-in-time claim that “we solved the problem” with immiserating and dysfunction-reproducing tools is no more attractive here than when made in celebration of cash handouts to single mothers.

In an ideal world, this might be a site of common ground for sides that mostly speak past each other but are in fact both infuriated by policies that produce positive data while maintaining a toxic status quo. We may not get far so long as the liberal answer is “Defund the Police” (though conservatives might at least make some sense of that impulse by reflecting on how an anti-poverty policy based on slashing welfare spending must have sounded to liberals). But conservatives still need to ask where our agenda should go from here.

Perhaps aggressive policing to reduce crime rates was a prerequisite to further progress; the space in which healthy communities might bloom had to be pried open. Fair enough. But what was step two? What is step two? We owe an answer.

Oren Cass
Oren Cass is chief economist at American Compass.
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