The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Shift (as Detected by One Man’s Nose)

In the mail comes a new book by Patrick M. Garry, a law professor at the University of South Dakota. It is a little paperback titled “The False Promise of Big Government: How Washington Helps the Rich and Hurts the Poor.” It boasts a big-time blurb from Yuval Levin:

“In this bold and brilliant book, Patrick Garry takes on our overgrown government in the terms of its defenders: he systematically demolishes the argument that a larger government better serves the poor and vulnerable. It is simply essential reading.”

I haven’t cracked open the book, but Yuval’s word is good enough for me (and for you too, I bet).

I thought I would take the occasion of the book to make a point — to record an observation: Conservatism has shifted over the years in the following way (among others):

Years ago, in the early ’80s, the main feeling on the right was “Get government out of the way. Get the government off the backs of the people.” Reagan used to joke, “The ten scariest words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’”

We often cited the principle “First, do no harm,” or, as WFB would say, Primum non nocere. If the government couldn’t help, it could at least refrain from doing harm.

Conservatives were always saying, “Don’t look to the government to solve your problems, least of all to the federal government. What can you do? What can your community do? What can civil society — little platoons — do?” We went on to say, “Most social problems aren’t amenable to solution by the government. The best the government can do is provide physical security, a relatively free economy, and the rule of law.”

(I am generalizing here, but I plead blogpost, rather than book.)

In a thousand ways, we said, “Don’t look to the government to provide your happiness, and don’t think of the government as responsible for your happiness. This is not the American way, and it is not a sign of health.”

In 2000, Governor and Candidate George W. Bush offered a program that he called “compassionate conservatism” — harnessing the power of the government for conservative ends. Lots of conservatives poured scorn on this as a kind of socialism lite. “Freedom is compassionate,” said Senator Gramm (and I like to think he added “dammit,” which is how I sometimes quote it, taking license).

Today, some of those who were most scornful of “compassionate conservatism” say something like the following: “The Republican party and the conservative movement have failed people. We have failed to craft programs that meet their needs, and we have particularly failed the white working class. What are we doing for them? What is the government doing for them? People are sour, distressed, and drug-addicted, and we need to ditch the old Reagan faith, which might have been fine for the time, and come up with answers, pronto!”

Many conservatives are like the progressives of the past and present who believe there are, and must be, answers — and governmental answers at that.

In this lil’ post, I am not passing judgment, and I’m not even expressing an opinion. Lawyer-like, I can argue several sides. I am saying that I detect a shift — a shift in conservative thinking, rhetoric, and feeling. I wonder whether my colleagues have detected the same or think I must be smoking something (and inhaling, as we used to say in the Clinton ’90s).

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