The American Ambition

The American Ambition

At the heart of conservative economics is the idea that a nation can and should choose the shape of its markets in pursuit of the substantive outcomes it values. Whereas much of conventional economics declares itself above politics and able to evaluate results objectively through measures of consumer welfare, conservatives recognize that the choice of consumer welfare as the measuring stick is just that—a choice—and not a good one. Thus, a responsive politics that seeks to understand America and pursue the economic policies that will serve the nation well, is vital. What do Americans want from their economy, and how do they define success for themselves?

For most Americans, the American Dream is not to “rise up” from humble beginnings through elite education to high-paying jobs in big cities. It is to work hard, build families, and achieve middle-class security in the communities where they live. Of course, everyone will have their own specific definition, but key elements are broadly shared: affording health insurance, being able to support a family on one income, owning a home, and saving enough to send children to college.

For parents, across political parties and classes, the goal of education is not maximizing academic potential but rather “developing the skills and values to build decent lives in the communities where they live.” Young adults feel the same way about their own education.

Similarly, while most upper-class parents with the highest incomes and levels of education would choose an education path for their own children that leads to the “best career, far from home,” most other parents would give higher priority to local ties, choosing “good career, close to home.”

Likewise, family takes precedence over career for most Americans. Most parents, across parties, see a happily married life with children, even if just getting by financially, as preferable to being financially well-off but single with no children in the household.

Thus, while the American education system focuses on moving every young person from high school to college to career, most parents see that model failing their children and would prefer a shift toward supporting non-college pathways like apprenticeships and training programs. 

Among families with children, upper-class Americans embrace a model in which both parents work full-time while using full-time paid childcare, but for other Americans that model holds little appeal, and the top choice would be to have one parent working full-time while the other parent provides childcare in the home. This preference is strongest among the working class, and among married women.

In the workplace, most Americans place heavy importance on labor-management relations and say they wish they had more opportunities for their voice to be heard, but the traditional labor union model is not the model they prefer. Among potential union members, 63% say they would prefer a worker organization run jointly by employees and management over one run by employees alone.

Finally, in addressing the challenges facing American families, widespread support exists across the ideological spectrum for expanding government support. Even among Americans identifying as “very conservative,” most agree that the federal government should provide more support for families—most often because “families are falling behind and need the help.”

When they are working well, free markets not only allocate capital to productive uses and serve consumers at the lowest possible price, but also spread prosperity throughout a nation by ensuring that people have opportunities to build the lives they want, access to good jobs with rising wages through which they can support their families and communities, and ultimately the ability to raise children prepared to do the same.

In recent decades, conservatives have declined to hold American capitalism accountable for those outcomes, and it has failed to produce them. But if spreading prosperity through family-supporting jobs is not a core function of the market economy, where does that responsibility lie? One answer might be that it is no responsibility at all—family-supporting jobs and rising wages for the common man are nice to have, but inessential. A second might be that it is not the market’s responsibility but the state’s to create the necessary jobs or redistribute the income. Some libertarians take the first view, some progressives the second.

For conservatives, though, rebuilding American capitalism is imperative to protecting and advancing the nation’s liberty and prosperity. Policymakers must play an essential role in that process. The chapters that follow explain how.