The Corner

Ryan’s Way

According to popular lore and their own mythology, the Left — secular or religious — are the ones who really care about those who aren’t as well off as the vast majority of Americans. Over time that has produced welfare-state, top-down solutions foisted on us (and the poor) by progressives, New Dealers, and Great Society acolytes. At the same time, we shouldn’t run away from the fact that many conservatives have either embraced many of these programs or produced their own slightly less expansive, mildly less expensive versions in order to prove that they also care, or, less idealistically, because they’re also bought into the deeply corrupting game of using taxpayer money to attract votes.  

Times, however, are a-changing, and that has surely something to do with the cold economics of the welfare state now confronting our republic. The recent disturbing news – greeted with deafening silence from the left — that America’s means-tested welfare spending has reached $1 trillion per year confirms that we simply can’t go on like this — unless, of course, America actually wants to end up in the economic and moral dead-end otherwise known as European social democracy.  

Part of the solution is a broad and lasting economic recovery driven by free enterprise and free markets. Without it, reducing unemployment and increasing economic growth over the long-term in a sustainable way is essentially impossible. But we also need to find lasting alternatives to state-oriented approaches to addressing those problems of poverty that aren’t as easily solved with economic growth, because their roots are primarily moral and cultural rather than simply economic.  

As Jennifer Marshall points out, it’s not as if the Right doesn’t have alternative ideas. In fact, when their policies are implemented, they’re usually successful: Just ask Bill Clinton. But, it must be said, conservatives are often hopeless at integrating this into a coherent moral vision. The language of efficiency and effectiveness is important; it appeals to the pragmatic streak inside most Americans. But it’s not enough. No one is going to go to the barricades for utility. And if it’s simply all about utility, then there’s no principled reason for any of us to care about our neighbor.  

#more#Yesterday, however, in a speech in Cleveland, Ohio, Paul Ryan began something that’s been long overdue: a public and unabashed presentation of a conservative moral vision of the “why”s and “how”s of caring for the least among us. Moreover, in doing so, Ryan achieved two important goals. First, he put distance between his ideas and some of the questionable policies associated with the compassionate-conservatism agenda of the early 2000s. Second, Ryan rooted many of his proposals squarely in the ideals of American experiment.  

Among other things, Ryan, ever so politely but unambiguously, underlined the immense damage inflicted by sometimes well-intentioned government welfare programs upon those in need. Yet he did so in a manner that detailed the economic costs but also went beyond a narrowly materialist reckoning. Ryan pointed to the manifold ways in which government programs have undermined the dignity of those in need and constrained their opportunities for human flourishing.  

But then Ryan did something else: Identify civil society as the distinctly American way of addressing the challenge of poverty, be it material, moral, or even spiritual in nature. As he noted: “There’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual. Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join and our places of worship — this is where we live our lives. They shape our character, give our lives direction, and help make us a self-governing people.”

Put another way, America has never regarded politics as the be-all and end-all of human existence. Politics has its place, but most human flourishing occurs in other arenas of life. That’s something the Left will never, ever understand.  

And what are the state’s responsibilities vis-à-vis all these groups and associations that exist between the individual and the government? Ryan summed it up in one sentence: “Basically, it is to secure their rights, respect their purposes, and preserve their freedom.” Which, as Ryan went on to note, is why things like the HHS mandate are so utterly contrary not just to the American tradition of religious liberty but also to the American understanding that government’s specific role in securing the common good is limited rather than all-expansive.

What Ryan didn’t mention but is worth remembering is that the most on the left generally don’t like civil society (except, of course, for government-funded “non-government” organizations promoting this or that lefty cause). Modern liberalism’s endless assault on pre-political natural institutions such as marriage and the family in the name of “liberation” (and now “equality”) is a matter of record. But social democrats also tend to view associations of civil society as “inefficient” and difficult to factor into their penchant for the abstract-rationalist planning that they believe — despite decades of failure — will solve all our problems.

Much emotivist nonsense has been served up lately by the usual suspects (the serial statement signers) about Representative Ryan’s allegedly Randian or hyper-libertarian leanings. Robert P. George and others have underscored the absurdity of such claims, not least by observing that you don’t have to be a libertarian to be a principled advocate of the free-enterprise system as the normal way in which we realize widespread economic prosperity for the overwhelming majority of people. In his Cleveland speech, however, the Republican vice-presidential candidate went a long way to fleshing out part of the picture of an America that lives up its promise of “liberty and justice for all” that a lot of conservatives have been, frankly, uneasy talking about. Translating this into concrete policy is much harder. Getting the vision part right, however, is a definite step in the right direction.  

— Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy, and his soon-to-be released Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America can avoid a European Future.

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