American progressives have a story to tell, and they are not afraid to tell it. In this story, global capitalism is a war zone. Free trade is a racket. Big business and Big Pharma are rapacious villains that crush the common man.
You need a government prepared for war. You need a government fired by economic nationalism, willing to play trade hardball against our foes. You need a centralized industrial policy to shift investment where it’s needed. You need a government that will protect you, control you and give you things: free college, free child care.
Moderates have a different story to tell but they are afraid to break from the gloom-and-carnage mindset of populists like Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
But hope is warranted and must be displayed. In the moderate story, global capitalism is a challenge but also an opportunity. Over the past generation more people have been lifted out of poverty than ever before. For the first time we have a mass global middle class. This liberates masses of talent and leads to more creativity than ever before.
In the moderate story, government has a bigger role than before, but it is not a fighting, combative role. It is a booster role., to give people the skills needed to compete and flourish in this pluralistic world. It is to mitigate the downsides of change, and so people can realize the unprecedented opportunities.
Statecraft is soul craft. Through the policies they choose, governments can encourage their citizens to become one sort of person or another. Progressives want to create a government caste that is powerful and a population that is safe but dependent. Moderates are trying to create a citizenry that possesses the vigorous virtues – daring, empowered, always learning, always brave.
How to do that? First, learn from the Nordic countries. American progressives sometimes imagine the Nordic countries are socialist wonderlands. They are not. They have strong social supports and also free-market economies. In fact, they can afford to have strong welfare policies only because they have dynamic free-market economies.
No Nordic country has a minimum wage law. They are more open to free trade than the U.S. They have fewer regulations on business creation, fewer licensing regulations.
As Charles Lane pointed out recently in The Washington Post, most Nordic countries have zero estate tax. Nordic health plans require patient co-payments and high deductibles, in stark contrast to Bernie Sanders’ plan. The Nordic countries tried wealth taxes of the sort Elizabeth Warren is proposing, and all except Norway abandoned them because they were unworkable.
The Nordic countries show that social solidarity and economic freedom go hand in hand. That’s the general approach we want here.
Second, never coddle. Progressives are always trying to give away free stuff. They reduce citizens to children on Christmas morning. Warren and Sanders want to make public college free. But as common sense and recent research tells us, when you give people something free, they value it less.
Moderates want to help students finish college, but they want them to at least partly earn their way. They want to produce a country that is not full of passive recipients but audacious pioneers.
Third, drive decision-making downward. People become energetic, responsible adults by making decisions for themselves, their families and their communities. For example, moderates support child care tax credits so parents can decide if they want a day-care model or a parent-stays-home model. But Warren wants to make it hard for families to have choice. She supports only federally funded day care, forcing families into federal programs, limiting their choice and making them wards of the system.
Fourth, bring on the world. International competition is more rigorous than national competition. Moderates think Americans can meet that test. Warren’s Green Manufacturing Plan would shield American companies from that competition when competing for government contracts. They wouldn’t have to be excellent, just American.
Fifth, ignite from below. Warren wants to centralize economic decisions, creating a Department of Economic Development – a top-down council of government directors. Moderates emphasize tools that regular people can choose to build their own lives and maximize their own opportunities: wage subsidies, subsidies to help people move to opportunities, charter schools.
These are starkly different worldviews. So far in this campaign you’ve heard only one. But moderates have another story, and it is the better one.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.