An Answer to the Wrong Question

In less than a year, the agenda of the Republican Party will be pretty much fixed by the selection of its presidential nominee, whose policies we will all feel pressured to get behind, because they will probably be better than the prospect of Hillary Clinton selling the Oval Office furniture to the highest bidder.

So there is a certain urgency for those who are fighting over what that agenda should be. Hence the renewed push by those who call themselves “reform conservatives.” An examination of their agenda featuring The Federalists‘s Ben Domenech led to an insightful roundtable from some of our contributors. I talked with Ben about it yesterday on the Federalist Radio Hour, and we covered a lot of interesting ground, including the curious way that “reform conservatives” feel like a bunch of think-tank elites trying to draft a populist platform. This explains some of the disconnect between the ambitious goal of making the agenda of the right more appealing to the common man—and the result, which is a laundry list of technical policy tweaks.

What struck me most of all is that “reform conservatism” looks a lot like a rebranding of neoconservatism—not the neoconservative foreign policy that everyone has been talking about for the past decade, but the neoconservative domestic policy.

I remember way back in 1993 opening the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal—we read things on paper back then—and seeing an op-ed by Irving Kristol (which seems to be reprinted here) calling for “a conservative welfare state.” His starting point was that it was going to be impossible ever to roll back the welfare state and the middle-class entitlements: “the welfare state is with us, for better or worse.” So we might as well make it for better by redesigning “a welfare state consistent with the basic moral principles of our civilization and…our nation.”

In practice, this meant that the “conservative welfare state” should provide greater incentives for the moral values conservatives like, such as work and marriage, and it should be made more efficient by introducing “free-market” elements, which usually ends up meaning some form of vouchers or tax credits in place of a centrally administered welfare program. This is pretty much what the “reform conservatives” are offering now as if it were a new idea.

More to the point, this doesn’t really count as a reform of conservatism or of the Republican agenda. Offering more efficient and responsible management of the welfare state is the Republican agenda of the past thirty years. That isn’t a reform. That’s what needs reforming.

The key premise of this non-reforming “reform conservatism” is the idea that it’s impossible to really touch the welfare state. We might be able to alter its incentives and improve its clanking machinery, but only if we loudly assure everyone that we love it and want to keep it forever.

And there’s the problem. Not only is this defeatist at its core, abandoning the cause of small government at the outset, but it fails to address the most important problem facing the country.

“Reform conservatism” is an answer to the question: how can we promote the goal of freedom and small government—without posing any outright challenge to the welfare state? The answer: you can’t. All you can do is tinker around the edges of Leviathan. And ultimately, it won’t make much difference, because it will all be overwhelmed in the coming disaster.

America’s real problem is that we have entrenched a set of middle-class entitlements that are about to yawn wide open and swallow the economy. They’ve already swallowed the federal budget. Non-defense discretionary spending—the stuff left over after entitlements and the military—has been whittled down to insignificance and is about to disappear altogether. Defense spending is still quite large, but not much larger than the deficit. What this means is that most of the money the federal government actually raises in taxes is immediately spent on entitlements, and we have to borrow huge sums of money to pay for anything else.

It’s only going to get worse as the Baby Boomers age and drop out of the workforce at the same time that they massively increase the load on Social Security and Medicare. Greece is the harbinger of our future, as we hurtle toward the point when we’ve borrowed so much money—and need to keep on borrowing, just to keep cutting the entitlement checks—that it becomes doubtful we can ever pay it all back. Then our creditors start to clamp down and the whole house of cards collapses.

So tinkering on the edges isn’t an adequate response. The question we need to be asking is not: how can we reform the welfare state without challenging it? The question is: how can we convince the American people to start rolling back the welfare state? How can we wean the nation off entitlements?

How we can do that is a big topic, and I don’t pretend to have any easy answers. But it is at least the right question to ask.

It’s also true that this might not give us much guidance for how to win elections in the short term. But that’s not what this discussion is supposed to be about, is it? It’s not about the crude opportunism of “rebranding” the GOP for the next election cycle. It’s about finding a long-term agenda that can help the right define and achieve its goals. “Reform conservatism” looks to me like a great plan for rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. What we need is a plan to show everyone the iceberg, point to the clear waters in the other direction, and turn the boat around.

More broadly, we need a program that would achieve the real, fundamental moral reform this country needs: a rediscovery of personal responsibility, private initiative, and self-reliance. Do you know how you encourage individuals to take the reins of their own lives and make their way in the world, instead of sitting back and waiting for a government handout? You let them do it.

The defeatism is really quite astonishing. We are a people who crossed mountains and cultivated prairies, who built farms and steamships and steel mills, who created astonishing new technologies that altered every aspect of life. That’s the story of two centuries of our history. By contrast, the cradle-to-grave welfare state is an upstart experiment that only really took hold in the last thirty to fifty years. Yet we’re supposed to act as if that is the permanent, unchangeable, immovable part of our society—while the American as builder, creator, and self-made man is a vision that no longer has any power to stir the soul.

I think that’s a short-range, self-defeating approach. It doesn’t really reform anything, and the only thing it conserves is the welfare state.

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