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(NOTE: I submitted this reply to Steve Hayward’s recent piece for Breakthrough Magazine on “Modernizing Conservatism.” I did not hear back from the publication, so I publish it here, instead.)
While I agree with Steve Hayward that means-testing of entitlement programs is going to be an important bargaining position to bring liberals and conservatives together to cut spending, I found the rest of the article to be inaccurate, superficial, and just plain wrong (“Modernizing Conservatism,” Breakthrough Journal, No. 2, Fall 2011). Hayward is pretty good when he writes about climate change and Ronald Reagan, but on the “state of the conservative movement,” he’s a bonehead.
Near the end of this essay, Hayward writes:
I have written this paper in the hopes that my fellow conservatives will recognize the need for a conservative reformation.
Nice that he didn’t capitalize “conservative reformation,” but actually, his purpose is much more modest than he claims. It is to argue for higher taxes and (something he dare not say in so many words) ending the tax deduction for mortgage interest, which he calls a “middle-class entitlement, which represent[s] the lion’s share of federal spending.” (Just connecting the dots here, since nothing else constitutes a “middle-class entitlement” worth going after.)
Everything else in this essay is just puffing and jazz. Like most neocons, Hayward is comfortable with the welfare state, income redistribution, and public investment in “public goods,” and even advocates for more of all of these. United Republican opposition to higher taxes, something conservatives and libertarians have worked to achieve for 40 years, is the main obstacle to this agenda, and he knows it.
His core argument is that opposing higher taxes while letting spending grow without restraint, what he calls the “starve the beast” strategy, doesn’t work because as spending rises, it leads to bigger government and massive debt. Therefore, Republicans should support higher taxes. Read that again. Does it make sense to you?
Hayward has a hard time quoting anyone, including Reagan, actually endorsing this mythical and obviously flawed strategy. OBVIOUSLY, conservatives and libertarians favor tax and expenditure limits (TELs) that cap both taxes AND spending. OBVIOUSLY, Reagan in his second term and Bush I and Bush II failed to insist on spending restraint. A balanced budget amendment that includes a cap on taxes would do it. Despite his breezy dismissal of them, many state TELs, including Colorado’s, have worked.
Some of the confused and erroneous discussion in this article is due to Hayward inventing problems for the conservative movement that don’t exist. For example, he writes, “while conservatives have plenty of macro ideas for increasing economic growth, they have fewer ideas about how to secure a wider distribution of new wealth.” But conservatives are well known for pointing out that the ticket to middle-income life in America is simple: graduate from high school, get (or stay) married, avoid drugs, and get a job. More than 99% of people who follow that recipe are not living in poverty. And conservatives have lots of ideas on how to improve schools, encourage marriage and discourage divorce, discourage drug use, and create jobs.
Along these same lines, he says “where conservatives have succeeded in cutting government, they have done so by taking an indiscriminate fire ax to non-defense discretionary spending.” Untrue. Welfare reform was done carefully and successfully. Governors such as Mitch Daniels and even Illinois’ own Jim Edgar in his first term were successful budget-cutters, and voters rewarded them both with easy reelections. And school choice, which he writes off has having “made only scant progress,” had a banner year in 2011 and is teed up for greater successes in 2012.
More confusion and errors come from Hayward’s refusal to acknowledge that libertarians are an important part of the conservative movement, indeed are both the “conscience” and often the “brain” of the movement. The word “libertarian” never appears in this essay (or if it does, I missed it). But libertarians have recognized the problems facing the conservative movement long before Hayward raises them now, and have written persuasively and endlessly about their solutions. For example, Hayward writes, “in fact, the much-vaunted Reagan Revolution was not revolutionary and failed to alter the nation’s basic long-term political trajectory.” Libertarians have been saying the former until they are blue in the face; the second point is wrong, as the 2010 elections can attest.
Hayward’s efforts to write libertarians out of the conservative movement result in such foolish statements as his lament that the conservative movement possesses “little depth of intellectual leadership,” and that the transformation of the Republican Party into a conservative party “culminat[ed]” in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The conservative intellectual “bench” has never been deeper or the flow of new and excellent books more ample. The election of Reagan in 1980 was only the beginning of a 30-year process in which conservatives and libertarians wrote the policy agenda at the state and national levels for a new generation of Republican office-holders. The 2010 elections arguably signaled the latest “culmination” of that effort, with voters electing more Republicans at the state and national level than at any time since the 1940s, and probably more conservatives than at any time since before the Great Depression.
At this moment of triumph, Hayward warns darkly of the movement’s “fail[ure] on its own terms.” Why? Let me speculate.
It’s probably out of fear that the resurgent popularity of free-market ideas could lead to a libertarian party emerging that splits the old Reagan coalition and allows a liberal/statist to be elected or reelected president. Thus, anyone who says the goal must be to defeat and not just compromise with liberals, or that a “leave us alone coalition” could constitute a new electoral majority, or that the welfare state has to go, must be ridiculed and marginalized, lest they persuade the conservative base to vote for someone other than the Republican candidate. Those three positions, so key to the libertarian perspective in politics, contradict what Hayward pompously calls “the three dominant political facts of our age.”
There could be another reason for Hayward’s strange ideas. He may want to have something to talk about with liberals at cocktail receptions. If he has to defend libertarian positions on the “three dominant political facts of our age,” he will have (as he quotes William Voegeli saying) “nothing really to talk about.” And that, for a member of the chattering class, is almost a death sentence.