Freedom, Fairness, or Flourishing: America’s Fundamental Economic Policy Choice

Robert D. Atkinson April 1, 2021
April 1, 2021

Joe Biden’s multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure plan is big and bold. Most pundits and the media see it as a rejection of the prior half century of small government, free-market conservative thinking and a new kind of growth policy. As the Wall Street Journal puts it, “It all marks a major turning point for economic policy. The gamble underlying the agenda is the belief that government can be a primary driver for growth.”

But as Rob Atkinson writes in American Compass, this is wrong. The plan, and much of the administration’s economic agenda, is not based on the belief that government can be a primary driver for growth, any more than the conservative’s free market agenda was based the belief that free markets were the key driver of growth. Free-market conservativism was first and foremost about freedom. Progressive economics is first and foremost about fairness: widescale redistribution of income and wealth.

This gets to the pivotal question for our nation’s economic policy: what should the overarching goal be? There are three choices: 

  • Freedom: limiting the role of government. 
  • Fairness: ensuring that lower-income Americans have significantly more wealth, income and government services. 
  • Flourishing: spurring faster per-capita GDP growth, more innovation and greater U.S. competitiveness, especially in advanced industries.

Given all the challenges America faces, including the military and economic threat from China, a massive national debt, sluggish productivity and wage growth, anemic innovation rates, climate change, and the baby boom retirement bubble, I choose flourishing.