The Government Can't—and Won't—Give Meaning to Your Life

A conservative technocrat tries to engineer a better world.


The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, by Oren Cass, Encounter Books, 272 pages, $25.99

Every policy proposal is, in a direct sense, an attempt to solve a problem. Poverty, ignorance, hunger, sickness, danger, pollution—in the realm of politics, to name a problem is to call for a solution, to demand that action be taken by someone or something, which always turns out to be the government.

In his new book, The Once and Future Worker, Oren Cass, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute and a former policy adviser on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, offers a slew of policy proposals, from loosening environmental regulations to reshaping collective bargaining to overhauling the process by which the federal government funds state-based poverty programs to creating new wage subsidies for low-income workers. Each of these ideas is an attempt to address a little problem, all of which add up to a much bigger problem.

Cass starts from what he has dubbed the "Working Hypothesis"—that "a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy." His primary target is "economic piety"—the prevailing notion that the organizing aspiration of politics and policy should be to promote economic growth above all. He describes his book as an attempt to reorient American politics around promoting work and the interests of workers, especially less educated workers in manufacturing jobs.

But Cass' description understates his own ambitions, for he is actually trying to solve something much bigger: the problem of purpose. "Most of the activities and achievements that give life purpose and meaning are, whether in the economic sphere or not, fundamentally acts of production," he writes. His ultimate aim, then, is to restore—or provide—a sense of meaning to American life, particularly to factory workers who lack advanced education.

The goal is noble, ambitious, and impossible. Cass, the policy wonk and campaign adviser, wants to solve this big problem the same way he wants to solve all the little problems: by carefully pulling the levers of public policy. It reflects a profound and fundamental misunderstanding of what politics can do and what it is for.

The Once and Future Worker falls into a growing niche of books examining or attempting to address working-class malaise and the widening political and economic divide between largely rural voters who lack advanced degrees and college-educated urban voters. The genre's icons are writers such as Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, and Charles Murray, whose book Coming Apart Cass cites to establish the brutal conditions of the American working class.

Too many, in this telling, are not married, not working, not happy, not productive. Because politicians focused on growing the economy rather than creating "a labor market in which the nation's diverse array of families and communities could support themselves," low-skilled workers have suffered. The mistake was to treat people as consumers rather than as workers. "What we have been left with," Cass writes, "is a society teetering atop eroded foundations, lacking structural integrity, and heading toward collapse." Indeed, the white working class is literally dying as a result.

In this worldview, the signal statistics—the numbers that tell you everything you need to know—come from Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton. In a 2017 Brookings report, the pair found an increase in drug, alcohol, and suicide deaths among middle-aged white Americans. The lives of whites with a high school diploma or less were growing shorter, even as life spans were increasing for other demographic cohorts. This, they suggested, was a result of declining economic opportunity for less educated workers and the sense that they were worse off than previous generations.

Here was a problem seemingly created in a lab to provoke a response by ambitious technocrats and public intellectuals. It had everything: the tragic deaths of ordinary Americans to move hearts (and headlines), easily digested statistics generated by impeccably credentialed academic economists, and the imprimatur of Washington's most august think tank. Case and Deaton dubbed these shortened lives "deaths of despair," a phrase Cass, like many other writers, repeats in his book.

To state the problem is to call for a solution. Cass wants to end working-class despair.

The book presents a full spectrum of policy solutions, each designed to address a specific sub-problem for American workers.

He calls for reforming the public education system to allow for student "tracking." The current system, he argues, has gone all-in on college or bust, and so has produced a lot of college graduates—and a lot of busts. He proposes allowing for a variety of educational paths, including vocational training and apprenticeships that would make students more valuable to employers by offering on-the-job training. He suggests reducing onerous environmental regulations that increase the cost of opening new facilities or building new infrastructure projects, in hopes of creating more demand for low-skilled labor. He wants to let unions negotiate agreements with employers that would negate burdensome workplace mandates, in hopes of making the relationship between labor and management more productive and less adversarial.

Cass makes a strong case against America's array of overlapping and ineffective anti-poverty programs, from food stamps and welfare to Medicaid. In its current form, he argues, this incoherently designed network of programs pays people to remain poor, effectively imposing a high tax rate on work by narrowing the income gap between collecting government benefits and pursuing low-wage employment. Instead of eliminating anti-poverty spending, he proposes making it more flexible and locally accountable, giving states the power to determine how anti-poverty dollars are spent through a system he calls a "flex fund." States could decide which initiatives worked best and allocate accordingly.

These aren't radical policies, for the most part, and while they may not represent the very best solutions to the problems Cass identifies, they are generally good ideas. A politician who advocated them could appeal both to moderate, good-government reformers and to those who want to limit the reach and scope of government. American politics would be better off if these sorts of proposals were in broader circulation.

Yet there is something small about these ideas, something insufficient to the problem presented. Only a certain sort of person—say, a think tank wonk and campaign policy adviser—could propose eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency's new source review requirements as part of a package of fixes to generational despondency.

That doesn't make Cass' proposals worthless. At minimum, they would improve the economic policy discourse. But then, given the current occupant of the White House, so would nearly any substantive discussion of economic policy.

Donald Trump is not the subject of The Once and Future Worker, and he is mentioned only occasionally. But his presence looms on nearly every page. Cass is not a Trumpist: He sometimes criticizes the president, and he even attacks the administration's tariffs. Yet this book often reads as an attempt to articulate a more consistent and coherent form of Trumpism—to illustrate what a conventional, cogent economic policy agenda might look like if Trump had one.

Nowhere is that more true than in its discussions of immigration and industrial policy.

Cass favors restrictions on low-skilled immigration, and he is honest enough to admit there are tradeoffs involved. "If overall GDP growth is the goal," he says, "then all forms of immigration might make sense. If reducing consumer prices is the goal, then welcoming as many workers willing to work for as little as possible might indeed be the right choice. But if improving labor-market outcomes for the nation's less-skilled, lower-wage workers is the central objective, the economic case for unskilled immigration collapses."

Cass largely handwaves away the consequences of these tradeoffs. "The immigration debate," he says, "is ultimately about America's priorities." He demonstrates little sympathy for the homemaker whose groceries will cost more or the entrepreneur whose increased labor costs will drive him out of business, costing jobs in the process. He does not seem to mind that higher prices will stretch people's budgets, forcing ordinary middle-class families to make countless tradeoffs of their own. These people and their dilemmas are not Cass' priority, and he does not believe they should be America's.

Cass denies that he wants the government to pick winners and losers. He criticizes the deal made by state lawmakers, with the support of President Trump and former House Speaker Paul Ryan, to provide subsidies to Chinese manufacturing giant Foxconn in exchange for locating a plant in Wisconsin. But Cass has singled out a particular demographic—workers without college degrees—and declared that everyone else should pay, in the form of higher prices and reduced growth, to provide them with work.

And not just any work but a particular kind of work: making goods in factories that might otherwise be based overseas. Although his book is framed as a new way to think about economic policy, much of it is rooted in nostalgia for the cultural and economic conditions of the 1950s. Manufacturing jobs and the industrial economy, he argues, are "uniquely important" and should be given a public policy boost because they are especially suited to providing satisfying employment for workers with lower educational attainment.

Cass is upfront about his belief that Americans should be paying for these jobs. "If we want more well-paying, blue-collar jobs in America, on this view, we can just buy them," he writes approvingly. "Numerous social benefits would accompany such purchases, reminding us why we care about labor-market outcomes in the first place." Cass would sacrifice the interests of the country as a whole—everyone benefits from lower prices—in favor of the interests of a particular group.

Well, yes, he might respond. The point of politics is to determine priorities, and to decide who benefits from the policies that are made. The working class has been handed a raw deal, and it is time someone advocated for their interests. In any case, there are always choices, and those choices must be made by someone—presumably someone like Oren Cass. To argue otherwise is to accept a flawed libertarian logic that has produced steady economic growth while leaving too many people behind. It is a form of unthinking economic piety.

Cass dismisses libertarians as simplistic defenders of market outcomes that he would prefer to avoid through better policy choices. It's not entirely clear, however, that he understands libertarians. At one point he says that "even the fiercest libertarian—often especially the fiercest libertarian"—will defend patent protections, which suggests he is unaware that intellectual property rights are an issue on which libertarians are deeply divided.

Cass later claims that reimporting pharmaceuticals from abroad is prohibited "on the basis of bolstering the free market, again with strong support from libertarians." If anything, the opposite is true. In 2004, the Cato Institute, the nation's largest libertarian think tank, published a study titled "Drug Reimportation: The Free Market Solution." And Michael Cannon, Cato's current health policy director, has repeatedly expressed support for eliminating the reimportation ban.

Given his misconceptions, it's not entirely surprising to find Cass arguing that Republican Party orthodoxy hews "much closer to libertarianism" than to the less market-obsessed conservatism with which he associates himself. The difference, he declares, is that his focus is on promoting a "social cohesion" he believes market outcomes don't always provide and that better policy could foster. His real complaint is that libertarians are insufficiently technocratic.

Yet postwar America has hardly been a parade of economic policy victories for libertarians. Yes, tax rates fell under Ronald Reagan, and some industries have been deregulated. But over the last generation, the federal government has grown ever larger, spending and regulating more, widening its reach into workplaces, schools, homes, and pocketbooks. The working-class decline that is at the heart of Cass' book has occurred as the state has attempted to do more and more.

Even the "deaths of despair" that provide the foundation for so much of contemporary working-class declinism can be explained largely as an unintended consequence of restrictive drug policy. Research by Christopher Ruhm of the University of Virginia has found that only a small portion of those deaths can be attributed to deteriorating local economies. The most important factors appear to be drug availability and price, with legal restrictions on prescription opioids leading to an uptick, in recent years, in consumption of more dangerous alternatives such as fentanyl. (Case and Deaton dispute this framing.)

The increase in drug deaths is a problem created by government out of a desire not only to improve people's lives but to order them in a particular way. It is now also a problem government could solve—not by attempting to rearrange the nation's political priorities around a generalized vision of what makes for a happy and satisfying life but by stepping back, recognizing its own limits, and becoming less involved in the question of how any individual should live.

I will give Cass this: The focus on economic growth to the near exclusion of all else has been bad for American politics. It has produced one party that, practically speaking, has no economic policy beyond tax cuts and another party that views a booming economy as merely a way to pay for an ever-expanding and incoherently designed entitlement system. The politics of economic growth have become a politics of government growth.

The prioritization of growth has thus resulted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what government can do, and thus what it should do. And it has led smart, ambitious technocrats like Cass, for whom problem solving is an inherently governmental endeavor, to ask it to do far too much.

Cass might dispute this, saying he only wants to create a foundation on which people of all types and in all geographic regions can support families and build lives of their choosing. But it is obvious that he wants to organize American politics and policy around a specific economic and social outcome for a specific group of people; he has a clear idea of what a good life looks like, and he wants government to set policy that guides people toward it.

Cass' defenders are, if anything, even more blunt about the goals of these proposals. In a column praising the book, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that "to make the crucial differences, economic policymakers are going to have to get out of the silos of their economic training and figure out how economic levers can have moral, communal and sociological effect." This is not simply a collection of smart economic policy proposals. It is a moral crusade that asks government to lead the way.

Government can provide a material helping hand to those most in need. It can finance and facilitate common services. It can set out fair rules of the road for the economy, and it can punish those who would cheat the system.

It does these things best when it works from the sense that individuals know their own lives and interests best, and when it seeks only to let people pursue those interests, whatever they may be. It has an important—but limited—place in society.

But it cannot supply meaning, or cure despair, no matter how cleverly its policy levers are manipulated. The problem of purpose is real, but it is one we must all wrestle with continually ourselves. It is not one that the state can solve.