The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, Oren Cass, Encounter Books, 238 pages

Earlier this year, Fox News host Tucker Carlson sparked a spirited intra-conservative debate about the Right’s fidelity to free market capitalism, the perils of a consumer culture, and the opportunities and limits of public policy.  

Over the course of a 15-minute, widely circulated monologue, the primetime firebrand harnessed the spirit of our political moment. Sounding equal parts Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren, he lamented the plight of the working and middle classes, questioned whether cheaper consumer goods are an accurate barometer of prosperity, claimed that anybody who equivocates the health of a nation with its GDP is “an idiot,” and scorned what he considers to be a self-serving ruling class with no loyalty to the people it governs.

“We do not exist to serve markets,” Carlson declared indignantly. “Just the opposite. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.”

Although Carlson’s monologue took some liberal observers by surprise, it fits quite comfortably in an oft-neglected strand of conservative thought—ranging from traditionalist Russell Kirk, first-generation neoconservatives Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell, and paleoconservative Pat Buchanan—that has long chafed at the civic and social consequences of a consumer-driven political economy.

Carlson’s monologue also serves as the latest evidence of the ever-growing discontent that has animated both the Left and the Right since the 2008 global financial crisis. Unable or unwilling to adapt to the frustrations of left-behind Americans, the nation’s institutions face a crisis of legitimacy. The political fortunes of center-left and center-right politicians have diminished, and so-called populists are at the barricades.

Yet while tapping into popular dissatisfaction has proven useful in galvanizing the electorate, it does not guarantee that an effective program will replace the status quo. Polemics, though oftentimes necessary precursors for political change, are no substitute for a coherent governing agenda. If our political moment is to yield a productive populist program, it will require more than fire and brimstone alone.

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For those who believe that the country’s current trajectory is untenable, but balk at the alternative of ascendant democratic socialism, critical rethinking of our approach to public policy is necessary. Oren Cass’s The Once and Future Worker, published in November by Encounter Books, is already proving an essential text for such a project.

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A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an economic advisor to the 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney—a politician on the receiving end of much of Carlson’s contempt—Cass is no radical. He is, however, a heretic, willing to question the public policy orthodoxy that has dominated both parties for the past four decades.

In Cass’s telling, this orthodoxy consists of a tunnel-vision focus on two economic outcomes: increasing consumption (as measured by consumer purchasing power) and expanding growth (as measured by gross domestic product). And by these two metrics, such a strategy has been an undeniable success: GDP tripled between 1975 and 2015, and the average American enjoys unprecedented access to cheaper and cheaper consumer goods.

Yet this approach, which Cass cleverly dubs “economic piety,” has not been without consequences. An unquestioned allegiance to growth and consumption has blinded policymakers to all other considerations, most importantly the health of the nation’s labor market.

Contra free marketers, Cass dispels with the notion that the best labor market is the least-intervened-in labor market. Rather than a naturally occurring state of nature, the labor market must be understood as a garden—it should be tended to, and not trampled upon.

Work, in Cass’s narrative, is important, and the reader quickly concludes that he considers man’s productive capacities to be an anthropological good. The deskilling of the American workforce and the decline in male workforce participation have therefore contributed to a host of downstream consequences for families, communities, and the nation at large. These include, but are not limited to, the multifaceted drug epidemic, lower marriage and birth rates, and a corrosive politics of resentment.

As an alternative to “economic piety,” Cass proposes a framework of “productive pluralism.” Undergirding this vision is what he calls “the working hypothesis,” the principle 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.”

To achieve this end, Cass proposes policies that range from orthodox to heterodox to innovative. For a book with an implicit theme of “tradeoffs,” The Once and Future Worker unsurprisingly contains much to like and much to hate, irrespective of the reader’s political priors and preferred policy pr