The Corner

On Conservative Reform

Meanwhile, I’ve gotten a pile of email from conservatives who see even my grudging acceptance of some minimal, means-tested, welfare state as an enormous capitulation to liberalism (“Douthat’s an LBJ liberal! And you’re little better!”). I think there are some real and legitimate concerns about even rhetorical concessions about such things (no one needs to hear me invoke WFB on privatizing lighthouses again, do they?). And I think there’s room for some really good – and fun! – arguments on this front (I have them with myself several times a day). But I think some of my correspondents might at least ponder the fact that even on economics conservatives are not 100% libertarians. Likewise, most thoughtful libertarians are not 100% anarchists. Indeed, if memory serves, even Hayek had some sympathy for a guaranteed minimum income and was not horrified by legitimate government expenditures on things like infrastructure. As for spreading the wealth, do we really believe that government should be completely blind to the fate of, say, the severely disabled? Do we all reject the earned income tax credit in any form? Wasn’t welfare reform the sort of policy innovation that conservatives could get behind, even though it involved some activism and even extra money for a while?

I agree entirely that there’s always the danger that liberals will take the reasonable concessions made by conservatives as a blanket writ for unreasonable expansions of the welfare state. That is what liberals do. But isn’t a big part of being a conservative (or an intellectual, if you prefer) the ability and willingness to make meaningful and, if necessary, hard distinctions? Even if one concedes the existence of a slippery slope, do we have to say in all cases “Never A for A will inexorably lead to Z”? In some cases we do have to make that argument (though in such cases there are usually better ones to be made), but surely in some instances we can simply say, “this far and no farther.” We all let our kids get away with some things, but none of us believe that means they should get away with everything.

That I am willing to support some government aid to the poor and blind does not in my mind obligate me to vote for a taxpayer dole for the affluent and nearsighted. And if we as conservatives can’t successfully make such distinctions in a persuasive way, then conservatism is doomed anyway, and so is the country.

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