In Olympic sports like diving and gymnastics, participants are judged in part on the difficulty of the move they attempt. Judges take into account that a double-twisting double-flip is harder than a cartwheel, so they cut the more ambitious gymnast some slack for bent legs or a wobbly landing.
But that’s not how it works in policy debates.
Conservatives face a more difficult task explaining our policy prescriptions’ benefits than do proponents of ever-expanding government. But no one is going to score us on points. Conservatives must instead step up to the challenge of learning to overcome liberals’ advantage, and to bring the benefits of conservatism to life. Honest brokers in the media also should be aware of how the Left exploits their advantage, and help audiences see the true tradeoffs of alternative policy paths.
Liberalisms’ advantages are clear: Those advocating big government solutions deal almost exclusively with the most easy-to-grasp—but not necessarily the most powerful or significant—aspect of a policy’s impact. They focus on the person receiving the check from government or benefiting from a regulation; not on those paying the bills or bearing the cost of complying with government’s red tape.
Consider government paid-leave mandates. The liberal story always begins with an example, like a low-income, pregnant, unmarried woman—let’s call her Jill—who is struggling to make ends meet. Jill’s insensitive, ogre of a boss won’t give her enough time off to recover from the birth, let alone to bond with her newborn so she loses her job and family’s sole source of income. Who wouldn’t feel sympathy for Jill and anger at her boss? The desire to do something to protect this vulnerable woman and her child then fuels the push for government mandates to force all employers to provide paid leave to workers.
Yet conservatives know that many people—and many with stories just as sympathetic as Jill’s—will be adversely affected by such mandates. While the Left tends to paint business owners and managers as heartlessly focused on the bottom-line out of greed, in real life, employers are often juggling the competing needs of their employees and customers. Particularly in a tough economy like this one, they are just doing their best to prevent layoffs.
And indeed the overwhelming majority of businesses do provide employees with paid time off. Those that don’t offer this benefit typically run labor-intensive businesses with slim profit margins. Adding leave benefits to an employment package creates real costs—having to hire replacement workers or shifting work to remaining employees, which makes the business less productive—and means other hard choices have to be made: such as lower take-home pay or making do with fewer workers. For every boss that mistreats an employee like Jill, there is another boss making sacrificing to try to do right by a worker in need.
Government mandates, by their nature, make workplaces less flexible. The expected cost of each employee increases, which discourages employers from hiring. This means fewer jobs, particularly for lower-skilled, less valuable workers. It may be hard to identify exactly who is out of work because of any single government regulation, but the casualties are real: real people who aren’t working, who aren’t building skills, and who don’t have income they need today because government regulations took away their job.
Conservatism is about freeing people from government dictates so they can find ways to work together to solve problems. There’s a powerful, positive story to tell; conservatives’ challenge is to find better, more vivid ways to tell it.