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Misunderstanding Conservative Reformers



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In recent weeks, there has been a spate of articles —by progressives—about conservative efforts to reform the Republican agenda. These articles share a common complaint: that conservative reformers don’t part ways with traditional conservatives on core policy issues. Both reformers and traditionalists oppose Obamacare; favor a smaller government; etc. etc. But the Left, viewing reform through these policy blinders, is missing the true significance of the emerging voices of conservative reform.

According to Paul Krugman, you’re not a reformist conservative unless you believe that more government spending is the way to stimulate the economy. Ezra Klein argues that the principled conservative position is to support Obamacare, whereas only insincere opportunists oppose it. Basically, in their eyes, you’re only a conservative reformer if you’re actually a liberal.

Another set of progressive critics makes the case that, because conservative reform doesn’t represent a policy break from traditional conservative thinking, that it’s just a big marketing ploy to sell the conservative brand to swing voters. “In practice it will likely be more gestural than substantive,” writes Mike Konczal. Ryan Cooper calls the reformist approach “timid . . . so far,” with an over-emphasis on “messaging” rather than policy reform.

Actually, there is something significant going on within conservative circles, something with potentially much longer-lasting effects than a shift on a few policies here and there. To understand it, we have to understand the intellectual history of modern American conservatism.

In the 1950s, Bill Buckley, Frank Meyer, and others brought together three disparate groups: libertarians, cultural traditionalists, and anti-Communist hawks. These three groups were united in their opposition to the Soviet Union, which was the most important issue of their era. Their policy priorities mostly did not overlap, though there were compromises: Traditionalists let libertarians take charge on economic issues, and libertarians let traditionalists take the lead on social issues.

This coalition held through the Cold War. Since then, some elements of the conservative coalition have been in flux. Mainstream culture has changed significantly since the 1950s. The collapse of Communism, and the rise of Islamism, have led to some rethinking about our foreign-policy priorities. But the fall of the Soviet Union also vindicated free enterprise as the greatest engine of prosperity and social mobility that the world has ever seen.

So, conservatives of all stripes are united in the belief that that limited government and free enterprise are superior to their opposites. But where many reformers differ from their ancestors is in the philosophical source of their support for free markets.

The older, libertarian-flecked strain of American economic conservatism appreciates liberty as an end in itself. “Political order,” wrote Lee Edwards in describing Frank Meyer, “should be judged as to whether it increases or decreases individual freedom.” Put another way, the focus of the conservative political agenda was to increase liberty; the policy outcomes that flow from increasing liberty were sometimes a secondary concern.

For many of today’s conservative reformers, equality of opportunity — especially for the poor — is the highest moral and political priority. As AEI’s Arthur Brooks wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies.” As Brooks rightly points out, “America’s poor people have been saddled with generations of disastrous progressive policy results, from welfare-induced dependency to failing schools that continue to trap millions of children.”

Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, in Commentary, put it eloquently: “The Republican goal is equal opportunity, not equal results. But equality of opportunity is not a natural state; it is a social achievement, for which government shares some responsibility. The proper reaction to egalitarianism is not indifference. It is the promotion of a fluid society in which aspiration is honored and rewarded.”

This opportunity-oriented conservatism sees individual liberty as the key driver of equal opportunity, but it sees liberty as a means rather than an end. It is egalitarian in its emphasis, though that egalitarianism is of a fundamentally different kind than the left-wing focus on equality of outcomes.

Progressive critics have focused on the fact that conservative reformers and traditional conservatives agree on policy. But they’ve missed this important philosophical difference between the liberty- and opportunity-oriented conservatives. The reason this philosophical difference matters is because it leads not to different policies, but different policy priorities.

The more traditional strain of American conservatism places a heavy emphasis on tax policy. This is because income-tax rates were, for much of the postwar period, the most significant way in which our government infringed on our liberty. And there remain substantial flaws in our tax code that require urgent attention. But for the black mother who can’t convince a doctor to accept her Medicaid insurance, whose children are enrolled in failing urban schools, reducing tax rates can only be a part of the solution.

For these reasons, many of the conservative reformers have invested their energies in education and health-care reform, and in the fiscal reforms that make such reform possible. Some, such as Ross Douthat, have focused on the link between family breakdown and limited economic opportunity. The reformers are more sympathetic to immigration reform than other conservatives, though they are not necessarily lined up behind the Gang of Eight.

The framework I’m describing is, in many ways, an oversimplification. Traditional conservatives have, obviously, been quite attentive to the policy outcomes of free enterprise, especially how lower tax rates lead to greater economic growth. Jack Kemp talked about equality of opportunity all the time. And traditional elements of the conservative movement have not been silent on reformists’ issues. Americans for Tax Reform, to take one example, has been an important supporter of market-based health-care reform over the years. Conservative think tanks have long supplied policymakers with thoughtful proposals for reforms directed towards low-income Americans. The successful effort to reform welfare in the 1990s was led by neoconservative intellectuals from the 1960s, at organs such as The Public Interest. It’s no accident that Yuval Levin’s National Affairs, The Public Interest’s successor, is a locus of reformist writing.

But in the post-Reagan period, conservatives’ policy successes have been limited. Tax policy has improved since the 1970s, but government spending has continued to climb, and the regulatory state continues to grow. And many people who believe in the principle of equality of opportunity see the Democratic party as their natural home. Republicans do a great job talking about liberty, but they spend less time talking about opportunity in a way that resonates with low-income voters.

So it is of considerable importance that conservative reformers emphasize opportunity, especially for the poor and the lower-middle-class. It may not lead these reformers to disagree with other conservatives on specific policy remedies, but it does lead reformers to elevate a certain portion of the conservative policy menu to the fore. In politics, priorities matter, because the most important reforms can only be achieved if they gain a wide electoral mandate.

To progressives who want to better understand these concepts, I commend Arthur Brooks’s excellent book on the subject, The Road to Freedom. What Brooks articulates is what every Republican should seek to do: to orient the GOP agenda around opportunity for those who least have it, to offer these individuals a superior alternative to failed statist policies. Cynics might call it a move made out of political necessity. But it also brings to conservatism a ringing moral clarity.



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