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In This Present Time, Sustainable Conservatism

2:05 PM, Mar 13, 2013 • By FRED BAUER
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Reagan

Four of the most lamentably omitted words in American politics are the following: "in this present crisis." Conventional references to Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address note his declaration that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Reagan actually said, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Omitting those first four words does a significant damage to the legacy of Reagan---and also poses problems for the future of conservatism and the GOP after 2012. Those four words show the methodological conservatism of Reagan's temperament: Rather than making ideological declarations for all time, Reagan is speaking to his own time.  Reagan does not denounce all functions of government (the Gipper was no anarchist) but notes specific kinds of government dysfunction and a specific crisis that needs solving by a reform of government. Sometimes, this "reform" may involve a paring-back of government intervention, but sometimes it might involve other changes or even, perhaps, an expansion of government (say, for example, by increasing defense spending).


There is a temptation among some on the right to believe that government is always the problem and that the corresponding solution is always the reduction of government. While maintaining a limited government is a very worthy goal, a monomaniacal obsession with shrinking the government at all costs can make one blind to the fact that even a shrinking government must be administered. And a bad application of government powers can undermine the broader social conditions necessary for maintaining a small government. For example, the poor financial and mortgage regulations of the the 2000s helped lead to the cataclysm of 2007 and 2008 and the corresponding explosion in government spending made possible by this cataclysm. Conservatives must also cope with the fact that, especially in this era of declining wages and great economic uncertainty, many Americans are quite happy with an active federal government.

All these points have a bearing on the possible restoration of Republicans and conservatives after the debacle of 2012. Even as Washington settles into another battle over the budget, an increasing number of conservative writers (and a few elected officials) are becoming aware of the fact that anti-government platitudes are losing their electoral punch and of the need for conservatism to be about more than the budget. Now is probably not the space to give a laundry list of the names of pundits who have considered conservative reform, but it might be worthwhile to turn to a recent online debate between Hot Air's Ed Morrissey and the Daily Caller's Matt Lewis as revealing two major trends for the future of conservatism---and to look at what a synthesis of these approaches could mean.

Lewis has suggested the value of a return to a "compassionate conservatism," one that would go beyond celebrating selfishness to think of our broader commitments to one another. This interest in rehabilitating compassionate conservatism can be seen more widely on certain parts of the right (Peter Wehner's and Michael Gerson's recent cover story in Commentary, for instance, seems informed by this impulse). Morrissey has proposed instead the value of a "practical conservatism," which would focus on reforming rather than blowing up many of the institutions that have become central to American public life since the New Deal (such as Social Security). This theme also percolates throughout various sectors of the reformist wing of the right. Perhaps I might pose a synthesizing variant of these two: "sustainable conservatism." The goal of such a conservatism would involve nurturing the public and private institutions and tendencies that help sustain a free republic. It seems as though maintaining a free republic demands, among other things, faith in government and the rule of law, a sense of civic participation, a belief in personal freedom, virtue on the part of its citizens (and especially its government officials), and some kind of wisdom or prudence. Sustainable conservatism would seek to foster these tendencies in order to renew the civic compact.  

This emphasis on sustainability incorporates aspects from both movements. Lewis and others are quite right to note that, for the Founders, private and public responsibility play an important part of maintaining a free society. If those at the economic and political top believe in simply aggregating more and more wealth and power to themselves without any compassion or public virtue, we would not simply risk having a tiny super-elite and an ocean of the poor. We could also witness the free market and democratic process being corrupted, as this super-elite uses regulation, taxation, and subsidies to grant more power to itself. Moreover, the poor and weak, stymied at every turn, could easily look for revolutionary means to overthrow their selfish overlords. See the French Revolution for more details.

Empathy, compassion, and a sense of public spiritedness are great helpmates in maintaining a republic. The "compassionate conservatism" preached by George W. Bush was very laudable in its motivations, but the practice of this "compassionate conservatism" often fell short. However good its intentions, "compassionate conservatism" often failed to treat the driving causes of economic decline in the United States. The real estate and financial bubbles of the Bush presidency did not compensate for the stagnating wages and slowing economic growth of the 2000s; if anything, they ended up compounding inequality and further undermining the economic vitality of the nation. It's not enough for the government to cut a check after the fact in order to compensate for a lack of economic opportunity. Instead, opportunity must grow organically within an economy  (though there are certain things government can do to act as fertilizer for this opportunity). A popular prosperity is likely far better than redistributive government subsidies passed to compensate for the stagnation of the economic middle.

Reformist arguments that conservatives should focus on practical improvements for government have a considerable Reaganite pedigree. After all, throughout his two terms, Ronald Reagan worked on fixing---not destroying---the post-New Deal social compact: compared to the setbacks of the Carter administration, the successes of Reagan proved that the federal government could still work, and the Social Security reforms championed by Reagan made the program sustainable for decades into the future. Sustainable conservatism recognizes that severe dysfunction challenges a broad public faith in government and that the maintenance of a free, civil society seems to involve some kind of belief in government. By focusing on practical, targeted improvements to government policies, conservatives can prod public policy in the right direction, and reforms to ensure that programs are administered as effectively as possible can gratify the ideals of both small government and good government.  

Sustainable conservatism would seek to expand opportunity and to ensure that a broad range of Americans enjoy the fruits of prosperity. The tactics of a sustainable conservatism are varied, but here are some things we might consider: financial reform that ends the era of "Too Big to Fail" and ensures a market-oriented and transparent financial sector; tax reform that encourages work and strong family formation; an approach to immigration that provides opportunity for recent immigrants and native-born workers alike and that does not subsidize a race to the bottom in wages; market-oriented health-care reform that enables individuals to gain affordable health-care without breaking the public bank; policies that encourage industrial and energy development; and reforms to make federal entitlements sustainable (especially Medicare). These sorts of policies would make government finances more sustainable and help foment a prosperity that would lessen the need for big government.

In a cherished piece of Constitutional lore, Benjamin Franklin tells those gathered outside the Constitutional Convention that the Convention had given the United States "a republic...if you can keep it." Sustainable conservatism would be about recognizing the challenges and rewards of keeping that republic. It would search for a popular prosperity, where Americans from all walks of life could seek to improve their lots and have a real hope of economic security. It would aim to make government regulations serve the public good rather than enrich the politically connected. It would realize the virtues of decentralization while also recognizing that all Americans are in this civil ship together.  Instead of celebrating selfishness or the faux-sympathy of Big Brother, it would argue for a politics of personal empathy and individual empowerment. Sustaining a free republic is both a moral and a technical enterprise, and sustainable conservatism would take on both aspects of this challenge in order to preserve the promise that was founded in this nation so many years ago.

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