An Introduction to Responsive Politics
Defining success as achievement of the outcomes that people value most
In recent decades, American politics has been driven by a devotion to “consumer welfare,” and policymakers narrowed their goal to increasing how much stuff everyone could buy. Whether families earned income through paychecks or relied upon government transfers, whether communities thrived or collapsed, whether inequality rose, whether families formed—none of that counted.
That mindset is neither conservative nor responsive to the needs and aspirations of the American people. Politicians and their economic advisors have ignored Americans’ growing frustration with the economy, unable or unwilling to see the difference between an economy that supplies secure jobs that support flourishing families and communities and one that ships manufacturing jobs overseas in exchange for cheap flat-screen TVs. As a result, American politics has experienced a populist backlash.
Conservatives now realize that economics needs politics to define the ends that markets should advance, and policymakers must be responsive to their constituents. The market has incredible power to orchestrate millions of individual actions through price signals and freely chosen transactions. But the market has no power to recognize, let alone provide for, the many needs that are not reflected in price signals, even when they are more important to people’s lives and require greater coordination and cooperation.
No matter how much people want to see investment, growth, and job creation spread widely across the country, markets will concentrate it in narrow geographies or send it overseas if that provides investors the greatest return. No matter how much people care about forming and raising strong families in thriving communities, markets will value their efforts and the results at roughly zero. Identifying such priorities, and establishing public policies that force market actors to take account of them, is a task that only politics can complete.
Thus, rather than relying on the excuse that “markets know best,” conservative economics depends upon a definition of the market’s purpose. Responsive politics requires taking the time to understand Americans’ priorities and respecting the inherent validity of those priorities as the foundation from which policymakers should work. Only with a clear understanding of what the nation wants to achieve can policymakers begin answering the question of how to achieve it.
When asked, Americans readily identify what they see as major problems and what they want for themselves and their children. In American Compass polling, a majority of Americans across parties and classes reject the consumer-welfare standard chosen by economists, instead placing significant weight on concerns about stagnating wages, rising inequality, and pressure to have two parents working to support a family.
American aspirations for their families are likewise disconnected from the assumptions and preferences of the upper-class elites who make policy. While highly educated people in high-income households emphasize “getting out” of smaller cities and towns for top-tier schools and careers, most Americans see the objective as building a decent life in their community, living close to home even if it means sacrificing career options, and prioritizing family over economic success.
Economists and policymakers, themselves highly-educated high earners living and working in a narrow set of prosperous places, have claimed to know people’s interests better than the people themselves, with disastrous results. Leadership requires knowing why one leads—and for whom.