The Agenda

Conservatism as Gratitude

I was really delighted to hear that Yuval Levin, a friend and colleague, was awarded a 2013 Bradley Prize for his work in advancing the cause of limited government. Yesterday, he offered brief remarks on receiving the award. His characterization of conservatism as gratitude struck me as exactly right, and as a reminder of where U.S. conservatism sometimes goes wrong. Though I’m sure some of Yuval’s liberal readers will object, his basic argument is that because conservatives start from modest expectations of human affairs — “we know that people are imperfect, and fallen, and weak; that human knowledge and power are not all they’re cracked up to be; and we’re enormously impressed by the institutions that have managed to make something great of this imperfect raw material” — they tend to be (or perhaps they ought to be) grateful for the achievements of our culture and our society, and keen to preserve what is best in our past. Liberals, in contrast, often express outrage over the various failings of our society, as they start with higher expectations “about the perfectibility of human things and the potential of human knowledge and power.” I think it’s fair to say that both of these tendencies can be found on both the right and left of the political spectrum, i.e., there are utopians on the right and modest incrementalists on the left. But Yuval’s framework is central to why I identify as a conservative, despite the fact that my views are not always in line with the conservative consensus. 

And earlier today, Mike Lee, the Republican senator from Utah, gave a speech at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, that calls for “a conservative reform agenda” very much in keeping with Yuval’s line of thinking:

Conservatives have argued for years that the family must be at the core of our worldview. On issues like school prayer, or the right to life, or traditional marriage, or home-schooling, conservatives have said protecting the family is the most important part of our moral agenda.

Today, some critics say that times have changed, and we have to change with them. They say we have to reach out to people beyond our conservative base. They say we have to change the way we think and talk about families.

It may surprise some of you to hear, but I think they make a great point. Times have changed. We do need to broaden our appeal, and change the way we think and talk about family.

But ultimately, the critics have it backwards. The problem is not that conservatives have focused too much on the family — but far too little.

Too many in Washington seem not to realize it, but the rapid changes we have seen in recent years in America have only made the family more important, not less. The family is the foundation not only of our society, but of our economy, our culture, and our democracy as well. The family is indivisible from any facet of America’s history or destiny. Crises like divorce, fatherlessness, and social isolation – while moral in nature – have enormous social and economic consequences.

In the same way, economic problems like unequal opportunity; stagnant wages; and the spiraling costs of housing, health care, and education represent moral threats to family stability and national unity.

Working families today are bearing the brunt of all of the above. And as a result, too many are falling behind.

Their anxieties are very real – and so are the liberals’ flawed, seductive, big-government proposals to relieve them. To address those anxieties, it is not enough for us simply to oppose liberals’ ideas. We have to propose conservative ones. We have to show working families that bigger government will not solve their problems; that instead, bigger government is creating them. [Emphasis added]

Lee’s challenge will be to square the circle. Having recognized that government exacerbates many of the problems he has identified, like “the spiraling costs of housing, health care, and education,” he has to identify ways that government can help mitigate them. My sense is that he has the diagnosis right, i.e., that changes in family structure both contribute to and reflect broader economc challenges, but I am eager to see if he will also get the solutions right. As a stalwart Tea Party conservative, Lee’s opposition to big government should come as no surprise. But it does seem as though he sees a role for policy innovation — for changing what government does and how it does it rather than relying solely on rolling it back. 

P.S. Josh Barro finds Lee’s address vacuous. I can see why Josh is disinclined to give Lee the benefit of the doubt. As Josh Kraushaar reminds us in his latest column, the GOP hasn’t done much to earn the confidence in reform conservatives in the last several months, and so some skepticism is warranted. Moreover, there is a division of labor in right-of-center punditry, and Josh has long since declared himself the GOP’s “bad cop.” As one of the good cops, however, I’m obligated to raise a few points in Lee’s defense:

Ponnuru and Stein recognize that bigger tax credits for families have a fiscal cost, and that prioritizing them means shifting focus away from cutting tax rates. But Lee makes this proposal in the same breath that he calls for lower tax rates. He’s not acknowledging the fiscal trade-off: if the GOP hopes to devote more fiscal resources to the middle class it will have to devote fewer to people with high incomes.

The Stein plan, as outlined in National Affairs, envisions a top marginal tax rate of 35 percent, i.e., the Bush-era top marginal tax rate. While Stein, Ponnuru, et al. might consider the ATRA top rate of 39.6 percent acceptable, it is easy to imagine Lee proposing a return to 35 percent as part of a revenue-neutral tax reform. The expansion of the child credit will undoubtedly be very expensive, yet other tax expenditures can be trimmed even further than Stein suggests. 

It also runs directly counter to Lee’s own tax plan, which would replace all federal taxes with a 25 percent flat tax on consumed income. That would shift the tax burden dramatically away from wealthy families toward those with low- or middle-incomes.

Josh is clearly right to suggest that Lee’s current stance on tax reform entails moving past his flat tax on consumed income. 

On education, Lee is offering the same Republican hand-wave on education as ever: freer markets will fix the problem. On infrastructure, he is saying he is for good projects and against waste — like everybody else.

It’s true that Lee has not articulated a higher education agenda (yet). But on infrastructure, I think Josh is missing Lee’s emphasis on federalism. Lee explicitly states that the federal government is wasting money that states might spend more wisely. For example, Rohit Aggarwalla of Bloomberg Philanthropies has, as we’ve discussed, proposed devolving responsibility for surface transportation to state governments. This is a structural reform, and my guess is that Lee, a staunch federalist, would be sympathetic to it. 

And on welfare, what does he mean when he says we must “rethink a dysfunctional welfare system”? Well, he has endorsed a Heritage Foundation plan that would cap most welfare spending at inflation-adjusted 2007 levels and then limit its growth to inflation (or, in the case of health spending, health inflation).

That would mean the government could not respond to increased needs during recessions; as rising unemployment made more families needy, Congress would be forced to find ways to cut back welfare programs. And it would mean that welfare spending would have to decline, over time, as a share of the economy.

The plan would also repeal Obamacare and Medicaid and replace them with a uniform, $2,000-per-person tax credit that would still leave health insurance out of reach for many people. (Poor families with children would be eligible for an enhanced benefit, but it would still leave gaps.)

Again, if Lee doesn’t intend to change his position, Josh is on firm ground. If he intends to move beyond the Heritage Foundation plan, it’s possible that he has a proposal worth rallying behind. Hence my stance is to cheer Lee on for arguing that the right ought to focus its efforts on unequal opportunity and stagnant wages while taking a wait and see attitude on what he intends to do next. It’s true that Lee has endorsed proposals, liek the Heritage Foundation’s “Saving the American Dream” plan, that leave much to be desired as governing documents. But elected officials often revise their positions, e.g., President Obama was strenuously opposed to an individual mandate as a presidential candidate, and he went from backing same-sex civil marriage to opposing it to backing it again in a relatively short span of time. What Lee is doing is recasting Tea Party conservatism by emphasizing the conservative commitment to stronger communities, a reflection of the ethic celebrated by the Church of Latter Day Saints. Utah has long been home to a more communitarian conservatism, which is in many respects more politically pragmatic than the more ideological conservatism that has thrived in the South. That is not an insignificant step in itself, and I’m optimistic that Lee intends to go beyond rhetorical positioning and towards real policy innovation. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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