Saturday, March 14, 2009

Core Values Conservatism

I've been meaning to get back to the topic of the (bleak?) future of conservatism.

Robert Stacy McCain responded to some of my recent essays in his post, "
Meghan and 'Progressive Republicans'." And now Ross Douthout's new essay is discussing "The Case For Small Government," which is a commentary on Charles Murray's recent lecture to the American Enterprise Institutute, "The Happiness of the People." Douthat disagrees with Murray's economistic foundations for conservatism's future. That is to say, Douthat suggests we look past a "costs and benefits" approach to ideological rejuvenation on the right. There should be, for example, more to the debate than questions of "how big the American welfare state should be overall, and whether we should copy Western Europe or disdain it."

I'm simplifying here, so be sure to check out both
Douthat and Murray, but I think the question of "how big should the welfare state be" is a good one for elaborating some of the issues I've raised, and for addressing the direction that Robert Stacy McCain's been taking the discussion.

Now, McCain's taking on the earlier advocacy on the right for a "national greatness conservatism," and in particular he's hammering David Brooks, who's been
in the news lately as an Obama administration lackey. McCain's right, of course, and the Brookes and Meghan McCains of the party might as well join up with the Democrats, for if we adopt the "moderate" programs these folks are pushing, we might as well have a one-party Democratic state.

But I want to return to my earlier discussion of "
Constitutional Conservatism," which draws on the recent essay by Peter Berkowitz at Policy Review. Recall the two key themes Berkowitz offered as a way to move conservatism foward: (1) big government is here to stay, and the right needs to vigorously advocate limiting the growth of government, rather than speaking of a rollback to a "small" state, and (2) the sexual revolution is permanent, and the folks on the right need to recognize the reality and accommodate themselves to the facts.

Robert Stacy McCain has focused on the economic dimensions of the Obama administration's neo-socialist program, and McCain's privileged "economic liberty and limited government" at the expense of an activist program on the right for social conservatism (or so it seems to me).

Now, that's fine, and McCain makes a powerful and moral case for a political economy of liberty. Part of this theme, however, is that George W. Bush was not conservative, and while that's true (as the administration expanded big government in the domestic realm with the Medicare prescription drug benefit,
among other things), the Bush administration's attempt to promote an "opportunity society" has either been forgotten by those disgusted with the last eight years of GOP power, or simply not taken as seriously as it should be as a way to get back on track. So, I think folks on the right need to be more clear about what they're saying: Are we just saying "no" to the Obama administration's power grab - a good thing in itself - or are we offering a realistic limited government agenda that is principled but pragmatic - and by pragmatism, I don't mean the David Brooks spineless variety.

So, in my estimation, we need more specifics: The discussion above should not be construed to rule out actually reducing the size of government in some areas. How about returning to calls to eliminate whole cabinet departments? Commerce and Education can go, as far as I'm concerned, and whatever regulatory or policy programs and institutions in place in those agencies can be downsized - especially in the education realm - and transferred to other departments. I'm sure a few other cabinets might be eliminated, say, Homeland Security, which was simply the creation of a war-on-terrorism bureaucratic gargantuan that fared poorly in its biggest test on the Gulf Coast in 2005. Thus, by all means, let's think about not only better economic policies that preserve liberty (low taxes), but we should also return to the ideas of Barry Goldwater, who in fact offered a plan to downsize the federal state in his classic manifesto,
Conscience of a Conservative. So yes, limit governmental power, and reduce bureaucracy where we can, but be specific and not ideologically dogmatic. Perhaps 50 years ago we could have reduced the size of government by 10 percent annually, in the process of shifting to state-centered federalism. But I'm not confident that such a program is likely today. Again, conservatives might achieve some key reductions as outlined above, but on the whole we need to be stressing liminting government, and especially restraining the continued growth of government as that being promised by the political logic and program of today's secular collectivists.

I'm neoconservative, of course, and
McCain's right to remind us that popular excoriations of the neoconservative agenda are mostly, in fact, demonic caricatures of the paradigm. Such demonization is popular with the America-bashing left, and the attacks have actually been successful in delegitimizing the neoconservative movement as a (perceived) viable foundation for moving forward on the right. That's regrettable, naturally, since much of the conservative successes during the Reagan years were in the social realm of families and values, and such traditionalist policies have their ideational foundations in the hot-house fermentation of neoconservatism's attacks on the left's social degenerations.

Gabriel Schoenfeld,
in a recent op-ed at the Wall Street Journal, provided a needed reminder that the "neocons" have been the leaders in promoting personal responsibility and social traditionalism. I think Schoenfeld's naive to suggest that President Obama will return to his earlier intimations of "New Democrat" policy sensibilities. The fact is that the GOP's the right home for an agenda that takes personal responsiblity and morals seriously, and it's frankly not at all difficult to meld a new conservative ideological agenda that combines economic liberty with social values (see, for example, Richard Land's recent piece on this, "Stay Faithful to Core Values").

Thus, let me be clear: I do not discount the need for an economic agenda promoting liberty. Lord knows the Obama administration's going to use every opportunity it gets to expand government, and the "
economic crisis" has worked wonders for both progressive fortunes and the left's destruction of freedom. What I do affirm is that conservatives will be better off seeking to limit government's expansion by acknowledging, as Berkowitz does, that "the era of big government is here to stay," and the folks on the right "should retire talk of small government and concentrate on limiting government."

I do not fully agree with Berkowitz on his social policy recommendations, however. He suggests, for example, that the right "should refrain from using government to enforce the traditional understanding" of society's norms and institutions. While we ought not expand government to "enforce" traditionalism, conservative politics and the conservative policy agenda must advocate for the restoration of values as the basis for a good social order.

One of the most important messages in Goldwater's
Conscience of a Conservative is that man is not simply an "economic creature." That is to say, liberty is not just a matter of limiting the state for the preservation of economic freedom. Full measure of human liberty is both economic and spiritual, and hence to talk of constitutional originalism, as does Robert Stacy McCain at his post, is to recognize that the Founders' limitations on state power were designed to preserve the inherent natural rights of man, and these include life, liberty, and property; and the notion of life is considered here in the most robust sense as not just the preservation of the body itself, but further in the fullfillment of God's capacity in man as a spiritual being. As Goldwater notes, conservatives have "learned that economic and spiritual aspects of man's nature are inextricably entwined." We cannot separate one from the other, so while I do not disagree with Robert Stacy McCain, I'm looking for a conservatism that takes social values as essential to the premise of limited government and constitutional liberalism (that is, "hard classical liberalism," in the libertarian sense).

All of this is to say that we need to advance virtue without "paternalistic assistance from government laws, rules, and regulations," to borrow directly from the thoughts of
Jason Pappas. We will need some version of this model if the GOP is to remain a conservative party. How all the various factions can work things out to form a viable electoral coalition remains to be seen, but I'm convinced that both classically liberal conservatives and social traditionalists will combine to make the core alliance that will drive the Republicans back to power.

4 comments:

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

Original gangster or Original gangster?

Gayle said...

I hope you are right, Donald, but I've seen so much infighting between classically liberal conservatives and social traditionalists to hold out much hope. We do need to join forces and stick together. Liberals never do the bickering in their own ranks that conservatives do. If there's one thing we can learn from liberals it's to not argue amongst ourselves. We should all remember that having the country run by conservatives, whether liberal conservatives or otherwise, beats the heck out of having it run by the far left!

Law and Order Teacher said...

Dr.D,
Your point is well taken. I, too, feel that we should cut some of the cabinet level positions that have enlarged government. As for services, once they became known as entitlements they were there to stay.

I believe a coalition will be formed. Being out of power is a great reality check and certainly will spur Repubs to get together. They have no choice.

Robert Stacy McCain said...

Thanks for the heavy Rule 2 action, Professor. Linked back in an attempt to boil the argument down to its essence. (Of course, the mental image of you in the Jello-wrestling pit with Douthat and Murray could be considered NSFW.)