Earlier this week, J. D. Vance — a person I admire greatly, by the way — delivered an address to the National Conservatism Conference that caught my attention and highlighted an important distinction between more-nationalist and more-statist Republicans (like Vance) and more-libertarian conservatives (like me). The issue is a key question: How much can government help solve the existential crisis that grips so many American hearts?
First, let’s dispense with straw men. I don’t think for a moment that Vance believes that only government can deal with the crises of family dissolution, suicide, and drug overdoses. But I would say it’s fair to argue that he has more confidence in the government’s role in solving the problem than I do. Similarly, I truly wish that Vance (and other allied commentators) would stop attacking straw men of their own.
In his speech, Vance said, “The question conservatives confront at this key moment is this: Whom do we serve? Do we serve pure, unfettered commercial freedom? Do we serve commerce at the expense of the public good? Or do we serve something higher, and are we willing to use political power to actually accomplish those things?” But as my colleague Kevin Williamson pointed out yesterday, even libertarian-minded conservatives don’t believe in “pure, unfettered commercial freedom.” Moreover, one of our core ideas is that commerce doesn’t come at the expense of the public good but rather facilitates public good. Capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic system in the history of man.
By contrast, the questions I ask are different. What are the most effective means of addressing deaths of despair? If we know what is most effective, should we not concentrate our efforts in that sphere? Moreover, what are the lessons that we can learn from the past, including lessons about the role of government in addressing deep-seated social problems?
Applying this frame, I freely admit that I want to double down on God and not government. I freely admit that I see that while government can do some good, it also has immense, demonstrated ability to do harm even as it tries to help.
Let’s take the opioid crisis, for example. While the media has justifiably paid a great deal of attention to the role of Purdue Pharma in the widespread distribution of OxyContin, the story of the opioid crisis is also a story of well-meaning government blunder after well-meaning government blunder. From FDA approvals of OxyContin, to the adoption of “pain as a fifth vital sign,” to changes in policies of the Drug Enforcement Administration to reduce physician oversight, the government made decisions that ultimately cost lives.
Indeed, the history of well-intentioned top-down government intervention in complex economic and cultural structures is littered with at least as many failures as with successes. Conservatives are well versed in failures of welfare policy, including disability policy, but the history of economic interventions is checkered as well. This Scott Lincicome paper on the “long history of America’s protectionist failures” is indispensable reading for any idealist who views restrictionist trade policies as an important tool in preserving economic opportunity.
In his speech, Vance referenced “a very popular libertarian author” who writes quite a bit about deaths of despair, the decline of the family, and the challenges of social media. Vance then remarked “that if you think children killing themselves are problems, if you think people not having families, not being married, feeling more isolated are problems, then you need to be willing to use political power when it’s appropriate to solve those problems.”
As my podcast co-host and colleague Alexandra DeSanctis remarked on Twitter, the phrase “when it’s appropriate” is doing “a huge amount of heavy lifting.” I want to use political power “when appropriate” also, but I’ve got ample reason to believe that the government is incompetent in the use of its power. Moreover, I’ve also got reason to believe that encouraging people to look to government to salve the wounds in their heart can distract them from looking to the true source of hope and healing.
In other words, influential cultural forces are speaking about government when they should spend far more time speaking about God.
This weekend my friend Ericka Andersen had a piece in the Wall Street Journal that asked “Is God the Answer to the Suicide Epidemic?” She shared research showing that women who attended church at least once a week were “five times less likely to commit suicide.” She also noted that “regular participation in religious community is clearly linked to higher levels of happiness.”
The response to data like that is sometimes an odd sense of resignation and sometimes even outright contempt. America is secularizing. What are you gonna do? Given that reality, government is what we’ve got, right? In his “Against David French–ism” essay, Sohrab Ahmari rejected my own repeated arguments for the indispensability of religious faith to national renewal with this dismissive remark: “Calls for religious revival are often little more than an idle wish that all men become moral, so that we might dispense with moral regulation.”
Idle wish? It’s more like urgent need, and it’s not just a need for people to be “moral” but rather for them to be renewed, born again into the infinite love of Jesus Christ. And this urgent need for renewal should color the way Christians with a platform use their bully pulpit. It should dictate how Christians with resources spend their money, and it should inform how churches and denominations direct their evangelism.
Here again let me return to Ericka’s outstanding essay. She notes that “church plants” — new churches started in often-underserved areas — attract new attendees. As many as “42% or more of church-plant attendees have not been to church in many years.” This data fairly scream to religious organizations, “Plant churches!” Go to the forgotten places in America. Go to the struggling towns. Lease room next to the laundromat by the trailer park. And then pour yourself into the community. Love the people there. Rebuild civil society, from the ground up, with the most hopeful message in the history of humanity.
That doesn’t mean we don’t think hard about what government can do. But it does mean that we should major in the majors and minor in the minors. Government draws us in because it is so powerful. Theoretically it can do so much. But its power is in the hands of fallen men, and its actions and programs consistently reflect that sad fact. Fallen men populate the church, yes, but Christians also know that Christ said, “Where two or three gather in My name, there I am with them.”
Given the choice of allocating my limited time between seeking religious renewal and government intervention, we should prioritize renewal. And given government’s oft-repeated pattern of hurting when it tries to help, I’ll maintain my skepticism of even its well-intentioned efforts. Facing declining life expectancy and rising despair, we urgently need to ask, “What or who is most effective at healing the human heart?” In that contest, believing conservatives should take God over government every time.