Steve Hilton, former senior adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron, is not buying the appeal of massive, expensive federal programs aimed at solving poverty and other critical challenges facing the United States and the world.
Hilton, an architect of the British Conservative Party’s return to power before he resettled in the United States, favors more localized, personal solutions to our nation’s problems like those he says he helped implement while serving as Cameron’s aide.
Hilton has been immersed in American politics since moving to California four years ago with his wife and family. Hilton teaches at Stanford University and runs Crowdpac, a two-year-old start-up aimed to make it easier for regular people to learn about and support politicians and run for office themselves.
During a wide-ranging interview with the Washington Free Beacon, Hilton made the argument against top-down, expensive policy initiatives developed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), President Obama, and others, arguing that big government solutions don’t consider specific hurdles facing individual citizens.
"The free college [proposal] is a great example of ‘inhuman’ policy thinking because it assumes that the problem is just purely economics, that the reason people drop out or don’t go to college is because of the money," Hilton, who was in Washington promoting the newly-released U.S version of his book More Human, explained. "And actually the real evidence from real people’s lives shows that’s not the case. It’s also a lot more complex than that."
While Sanders’ plan to make college tuition free has enthused his coalition of grassroots supporters, Hilton noted that it would actually be akin to "taking money from poor people and giving it to rich people, because it’s subsidizing people who can afford it."
"I don’t even understand how he can say that with a straight face," Hilton added. "It’s ridiculous."
Likewise, while Obama’s plan to make community college free is well-intentioned, Hilton said, it makes the assumption that the would-be community college student is held back only by the cost of tuition.
"Usually you’re talking about adults, and the reason that they don’t go is not because it’s expensive, it’s because it doesn’t fit with their schedule. They have childcare issues or the forms are really complicated or they can’t navigate the bureaucracy when they get there," Hilton explained. "It’s not just about money. It’s not even mainly about money. It’s about the design of the college experience."
Hilton said that the answer is not bureaucratic solutions but rather innovations delivered by the free market, such as those produced by companies that leverage technology to make degrees more customizable. He offered the example of Udacity, an online startup that allows consumers to take highly-specialized "nanodegree programs" built to advance specific career paths.
"Markets are better at doing that because they are a better way of identifying a fit between supply and demand," Hilton said.
"I feel like the role of government quite simply ought to be to either create markets or facilitate markets and then leave it to people to find the best fit for them," Hilton argued.
Hilton drew these conclusions from his own experience as Cameron’s policy guru, citing his work on a voucher program created to encourage better parenting in the U.K. that "stimulated a market" for parenting classes. The pilot program allowed some local health providers such as pharmacy chain Boots to distribute vouchers to parents who could exchange them for classes about bringing up babies.
The program, which Cameron is poised to expand, has drawn criticism for being a manifestation of the "nanny state." But Hilton defended the strategy, arguing that it exemplifies how "active government intervention" can spur new markets. He said politicians in the United States have generally come up short in developing policy solutions to help families in this way.
"Hillary Clinton … does understand the importance of this family stuff, to be fair to her. What I can just imagine what she would do is exactly the wrong thing," Hilton surmised. "Some massive federal program for parenting. It would be totally the wrong approach because it’s bureaucratic, it would be annoying, it would be designed in a terrible way by [bureaucrats]. Just, disaster."
Such criticism does not mean that Hilton is satisfied with the policy discussion on the other side of the aisle. The current presidential election is starved for more in-depth policy debates between both Democrats and Republicans, Hilton said.
Candidates who point to the plans offered up on their websites teach us nothing, he said.
"The real problem is that people running for office don’t really get into the detail enough of how these things work on the ground and that’s why they disappoint," Hilton said. "I think that’s an inevitable consequence of the centralization and bureaucratization of the world and of government, where you have these distant administrators thinking that they can implement some program."
Hilton said that both those on the right and the left "don’t do the work of trying to understand the lives of the people that they’re making policy for."
The answer for the Republican Party, he said, lies in a "more human," localized policy approach. He urged the party to develop policies to address a broader array of "mainstream" issues vexing the public on a day-to-day basis.
"One thing that’s really similar [between the United States and U.K.] is when we got going with David Cameron, the Conservative Party in the U.K. had ended up being very narrowly focused on some pretty ideologically-driven economic issues," Hilton said.
"Daily quality of life issues had been pretty much ignored," he said. "We tried to … spend serious time investigating a much broader area of life and developing a policy agenda that was broader than people had been used to. I think that is something that they could usefully do here."
One element that the 2016 presidential election has not been devoid of, Hilton admitted, is anger. He said that Sanders and Republican Donald Trump have both caught fire with people who are revolting against decades of rule by "disconnected elites."
"I think that what you’re seeing—and it’s not just a U.S. thing—there’s a revolt against 30 years or so of rule by disconnected elites who have assumed a technocratic agenda with certain important characteristics, like a disposition toward big business over small business, an uncritical approach to globalization, and a lack of regard for the consequences of all of this for the people," Hilton said. "That kind of attitude of, ‘Just, suck it up, that’s the modern world.’"
"We live in a world run by bankers, bureaucrats, and accountants. There’s this global elite that has implemented this agenda regardless of who has been in power and it’s been going on for decades," Hilton said. "I think that what you’re seeing is a revolt against that. And, interestingly, it’s happened to be expressed by two different people at the same time."
His fear is that Trump, the likely GOP nominee following a sweep of five states in the "Acela primary" last week, will be elected by the American public and change nothing.
"My big fear is that he gets elected and then nothing changes because he doesn’t have an agenda really, and then people will be even more angry. It will just be a bigger version of the Tea Party situation where people thought that everything was going to change and nothing changed, and that’s fueling the anger," Hilton said.
"Unless you have an actual agenda, nothing is going to change."