Conservatives Must Increase Economic Security Not Undermine It

According to the idiosyncratic twentieth-century French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, “Order is the first need of all.” She wrote this line while enumerating the needs of the human soul, and defined order as “a texture of social relationships such that no one is compelled to violate imperative obligations in order to carry out other ones.”

But her claim also applies if we use a much more prosaic definition of order—say, the everyday order of a prosperous, law-abiding society where no one worries about getting mugged on the way to work, or losing their job and being unable to find a new one, or going broke to pay for medical care. An orderly society in today’s world is one where everyone has a reasonable degree of physical safety and confidence in the rule of law, as well as access to food, shelter, healthcare, education, and work. When many people go without these basic needs and face the prospect of starvation, serious illness, or extreme financial deprivation, their lives become unstable and insecure; they lack order and predictability.

If order in this expansive definition is our “first need,” then most people will prioritize it over other goods like independence and self-expression—and they will be willing to give up a relatively high degree of liberty in order to get it. These tendencies have obvious implications for the realm of politics and economics. Capitalism, for all its power to create wealth and spur technological development, entails a fair amount of disorder. Companies are founded and disbanded, industries rise and fall, workers are hired and let go. Unemployment insurance, food stamps, welfare programs, and the rest of the safety net were created to mitigate this disorder and provide low-income individuals and families with at least some minimal degree of security.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many Americans feel threatened when conservatives seek to cut food stamps, slash welfare programs, stop the expansion of Medicaid, and limit unemployment benefits (even as job seekers far outnumber available jobs). The intentions behind these initiatives may not be cruel, but their results sometimes are. For an adult without savings and with a few mouths to feed, a $90-per-month cut in food stamps or a three-month bout of unemployment can mean serious difficulty. For those without health insurance, an unexpected emergency can mean bankruptcy. Even as conservatives tout a few sources of order—families, religious institutions, charities—their policies almost seem designed to exacerbate the destabilizing, disruptive aspects of market forces. It’s no wonder that the average American says Democrats are “more concerned with the needs of people like me” than the GOP.

If Republicans hope to win back the working class and make inroads with minorities (who are disproportionately likely to be poor or near-poor), then, they will need to do more than appeal to abstract notions of liberty. In a country that already has great freedoms, many voters will prefer to sacrifice a bit of liberty for a higher degree of economic security—and I find it hard to blame them. Conservatives should find ways to give these voters more order and stability, not less. Families, churches, and community groups are indeed crucial here, but they alone can’t guarantee well-paying jobs, health insurance, safe neighborhoods, and good schools.

But just because the government has a role to play in these areas doesn’t mean Republicans need simply sign on to Democratic ideas. Conservatives, too, have proposed creative reforms that would increase workers’ wages, spur job creation, and give families access to better schools. If they want to attract new voters and improve the lives of the financially vulnerable, they would do well to concentrate their energy not on trimming the safety net but on developing and implementing policies like these.

Anna Sutherland is a freelance writer and the editor of You can follow Family Studies on Facebook and Twitter.