Applying Conservatism

by Yuval Levin

I agree entirely with Ramesh’s response, below, to Thomas Edsall’s New York Times column today. I’d only add that Edsall’s confusion about the basic intentions and character of the reformers on the right is telling of a certain kind of blindness that afflicts the left now. 

Like some other observers, Edsall begins from the assumption that conservatives could only strengthen their position with voters by moving to the center, or that Democrats offer an example of a coherent and effective political vision that Republicans might learn from at this point, and then tries to understand what’s happening on the right through that lens. This leaves him confused about why, for instance, Mike Lee might be the most prominent leader of the reform conservatives on Capitol Hill, among many similar quandaries. A lot of his confusion would be resolved if he considered the possibility that we are actually trying to drag the party to the right, not the center—on the tax question that is his focus, and on the other issues we have taken up. In each case, we think some establishment voices in the Republican Party have gotten too comfortable advancing ideas that were originally rooted in applications of conservative principles to particular circumstances but are no longer as well connected to those roots (whether to the principles or to the circumstances) as they used to be.  

Edsall’s treatment of the tax question as the one on which the reformers have stepped furthest from traditional conservative arguments is a good illustration of his failure to see this dynamic. On that issue, it seems to me that a lot of the differences are about judgments of circumstances. The kind of proposals that “reform conservatives” tend to call for, and the sort that Lee and Marco Rubio have advanced in Congress, consist of the same basic components as most of the successful conservative tax reforms of the last three decades: efficiency improvements in the code to better support growth, lower marginal tax rates, and broad-based tax relief that also corrects distortions in incentives and unequal treatment of different sorts of individual decisions. These elements have taken different forms, and been prioritized differently, in different conservative tax reforms, but the Lee-Rubio proposal is very much within those general bounds. It does emphasize the business tax code in pursuit of growth more than Republicans did before taxes on business investment became such a conspicuous barrier to growth and competitiveness. It does emphasize marginal rate reductions less than Republicans did when rates were much higher. It does deliver more of its tax relief through payroll-tax cuts than Republicans did before the payroll tax became the main source of most Americans’ tax burden. It does prominently feature the over-taxation of parents among the distortions it seeks to correct, but Republicans have long championed that cause—including in the tax reforms they pushed through in the 90s and in the 2000s. So it concludes that full business expensing and lower rates on businesses and savers matter more than much lower rates on the labor income of the wealthiest (though it would reduce those some), and it concludes that a larger child credit is a logical way to simultaneously correct a significant policy distortion and deliver very broad-based tax relief.

This approach to tax reform is precisely an application of longstanding conservative principles and goals to contemporary circumstances. Conservative disagreements about that approach often amount to disagreements about the nature and significance of those circumstances. They’re important and serious disagreements, but they’re disputes about what an applied conservatism needs to look like at this point, and they’re generally disagreements about emphases, not goals or principles. So on taxes, the question between some reform conservatives and some other conservatives is how best to move Republicans to the right. In other areas, there is often less disagreement but in some respects even more work to do since too many Republicans don’t even think the party should move at all. 

At its core, at least as I see it, “reform conservatism” is just applied conservatism. In many areas of policy, we’re trying to move Republicans from merely saying no to the left, or worse yet saying “yes, but a little less,” to showing what the right would do instead. Offering a clear, distinct direction is likely to be a more powerful and effective strategy than just acting as a break on someone else’s agenda. That direction, moreover, is plainly more coherently conservative than the current policy agenda of the Republican Party, such as it is: We want to replace centralized management through the empowerment of technocratic experts with decentralized problem-solving through the empowerment of society’s mediating institutions (from families to civil society to markets); to lessen the burdens government imposes on Americans and correct the distortions it creates; and to advance a longstanding ideal of human flourishing rooted in the rights, liberties, and obligations of individuals, the interdependence of order and freedom, the centrality of the family, the intractable complexity of society, and the limits of human knowledge and power. A party with our agenda would be a much more conservative party than today’s Republican Party. It would also, as Edsall does suggest, be a more politically effective party, and not by coincidence. 

And it’s true that in some important respects it would also be more populist in its ends. Edsall finds this populism rather boggling too, because he identifies market economics with elitism, but this strikes me as exactly backwards. Markets are inherently populist—they are bottom-up institutions that channel social knowledge and popular preferences. The original case for capitalism, which remains the strongest case, is precisely a case for populism over elitism in defining the goals of a nation’s political economy. That’s exactly why the entanglement of powerful corporate players and powerful political actors—of the sort both parties have been far too comfortable with in recent years—is a particularly potent threat to capitalism, and why conservative reformers have made combating it such a priority. 

This emphasis, too, could help Republicans speak to the broader public more effectively. Edsall sees that. But he doesn’t see why some on the right are coming to this view because he overstates the coherence of the left’s populist appeals and understates the potential of a full-throated conservatism directed to today’s challenges and opportunities. 

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