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In the year since President Barack Obama’s re-election, a handful of advocates for compassionate conservatism have re-emerged to push back against limited government conservatives with the same agenda they’ve been peddling for nearly 15 years. Built around a message of governance in favor of the public good, they have chided the Tea Party and its limited government allies for ignoring the plight of the poor, heartlessly pursuing libertarian ends, and adopting a view of government’s proper role which is unrealistic and ahistorical.
The problem is that their own views are based on assumptions undermined by the failings of the George W. Bush presidency and by the organic growth in distrust in government among all Americans – and they fail to recognize the inherent weakness of their message, which confuses a political slogan with a coherent philosophy of governance and would allow for sweeping expansions of the state.
Former Bush speechwriters Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner have a long essay in National Affairs about conservative governance which has been getting some attention over the past few weeks. If it’s too much for you to read, you can read a shorter summary in Gerson’s Washington Post column here, which critiques “the identification of constitutionalism with an anti-government ideology” as “not only politically toxic; it is historically and philosophically mistaken.” Gerson continued on that theme in his subsequent column:
“One of the main problems with an unremittingly hostile view of government — held by many associated with the tea party, libertarianism and “constitutionalism” — is that it obscures and undermines the social contributions of a truly conservative vision of government. Politics requires a guiding principle of public action.”
“For popular liberalism, it is often the rule of good intentions: If it sounds good, do it. Social problems can be solved by compassionate, efficient regulation and bureaucratic management — which is seldom efficient and invites unintended consequences in complex, unmanageable systems (say, the one-sixth of the U.S. economy devoted to health care). The signal light for government intervention is stuck on green. For libertarians and their ideological relatives, the guiding principle is the maximization of individual liberty. It is a theory of government consisting mainly of limits and boundaries. The light is almost always red.”
“Conservatism (as Peter Wehner and I explain in our recent National Affairs essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government”) offers a different principle of public action — though one a bit more difficult to explain than “go” or “stop.” In the traditional conservative view, individual liberty is ennobled and ordered within social institutions — families, religious communities, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, local governments and nations. The success of individuals is tied to the health of these institutions, which prepare people for the responsible exercise of freedom and the duties of citizenship. This is a limiting principle: Higher levels of government should show deference to private associations and local institutions. But this is also a guide to appropriate governmental action — needed when local and private institutions are enervated or insufficient in scale to achieve the public good.”
The problem with Gerson’s framing here is obvious: in what way is appropriate governmental action to achieve a public good determined? If we are in an era when social institutions are in decline – partially due to government, but due as much to culture – what limits if any should expansionists recognize on the size and scope of government? This is the equivalent of the general welfare clause: If there is any limit to what can be defined as a public good, which of Michael Bloomberg’s policies would Gerson describe as unconservative? Isn’t it good for people to be healthier, even if the state is being a bit of a nanny? Were local and private institutions really dealing with those problems of too much soda and salt?
Throughout the piece, Gerson and Wehner make arguments that are very difficult to distinguish philosophically from liberalism. “The founders, then, provided us with a strong governing system – strong precisely because it could adapt to changing circumstances,” they write, echoing the liberal idea of a “living Constitution.” The authors also argue for a federal government “strong enough to shape global events and to guarantee a minimal provision for the poor, ill, and elderly.” Though Gerson and Wehner insist they believe in limited government, it’s hard to see what limiting principle they have in mind, as the definition of “minimal provision” could vary widely. Evidently, what philosophically separates them from liberals is a belief that the welfare state should be less centralized and technocratic.
Gerson and Wehner are not politicians, of course. But there are those who appear to be adopting their brand of reform. Senator Marco Rubio’s proposal this week for an anti-poverty reform agenda is a useful example of the problem these compassionate conservative assumptions run into when you attempt to put them into practice. While consolidation and block-granting are all well and good, Rubio doesn’t stop there:
“Mr. Rubio will also propose Wednesday to replace the Earned Income Tax Credit, which was used by 28 million tax payers in 2011, with a new “wage enhancement” system that directs federal money towards supplementing the income of people who work in “qualifying low-income jobs.”
Rubio’s motivations here are noble, and almost certainly pass Gerson’s “public good” test: wage stagnation is indeed a problem, and the EITC is a warped system which has racked up a roughly 25% fraud percentage over the past decade. But think for a moment about what he’s proposing here: a future of long fights over what a “qualifying low-income job” is, a definition ripe for unions to exploit under future Democratic administrations. And let’s not even get started on the audits and oversight. I thought that limited government advocates would want to get government out of businesses, not further integrating them. Conn Carroll explains:
All conservatives should ask themselves: Do I want to empower President Obama to decide which are the “qualifying low-wage jobs” and which are not? Is there any doubt Obama, or future liberal presidents, would use this new government program to play favorites in the market place? Would Obama or President Hillary Clinton every give wage subsidies to coal miners? Or Americans working at an oil refinery? Of course not. How would the federal government prevent fraud and abuse without making the new program a burden on participating employers? Instead of creating a brand new government program to subsidize low paying jobs, why not just cut the payroll tax for everyone? No favoritism. No fraud. No abuse. Just make it easier for employers to hire and let Americans take home more of their money every paycheck. Why not keep it simple?
Robert Rector has some criticism of Rubio’s plan here. But the bigger issue is that Rubio’s focusing on the wrong problem, as Scott Winship indicates here in a piece on another topic. Wage subsidies accept the left’s proposition that the problem here is a monetary one, where just giving poor people more money to be more comfortable in their poverty is the solution. That’s the opposite of a safety net, which – if properly designed – offers peace of mind to the most vulnerable in the event of total disaster. And Rubio’s answer ignores the fact that the real problem faced by the working and middle class isn’t wage stagnation so much as the actions of government have caused things like health care, education, gas and groceries to eat up a larger portion of their pocketbooks… an approach which would be far more consistent with a limited view of government’s role.
The best critique of Gerson and Wehner’s views may be this 2008 review of the former’s book, Heroic Conservatism, by John Podhoretz. In an eloquent passage, Podhoretz reveals the real failing ignored by the compassionate conservative advocates: they’re trying to turn a limited marketing slogan into a comprehensive governing philosophy.
But it is precisely the gap between the lofty principles expressed in speeches and the often compromised policies enacted by officialdom that has helped create public skepticism about the efficacy of government action to cure social ills. This skepticism vexes Gerson, but he does not offer a reasoned argument against it. He simply cautions conservatives not to be excessively fearful of the so-called “law of unintended consequences”—i.e., the possibility that government action intended to do good can have the opposite result…
“Like all true conservatives,” Gerson writes, “I believe in limited government.” But there is very little in this book about limiting government’s reach and a great deal about expanding it. Gerson’s call to idealism is inspiring, especially in his chapters dealing with Bush’s campaign to combat AIDS in Africa—surely the most underappreciated initiative of this presidency and perhaps of any presidency in modern times. And his account of the thinking behind the magisterial series of addresses through which George W. Bush transformed the foreign policy of the United States after September 11 is essential reading for any student of American politics.
But it seems Gerson never really grasped the truth about compassionate conservatism. This is that it was not a party program, let alone a developed political philosophy, but a marketing gimmick. It is thus little wonder that eight years of exploring the depths and reaches of this topic have led to a very singular brand of politics. Michael Gerson’s party of heroic conservatism is, I fear, a party of one.
The challenge of conservative governance in this era of the right’s muddled grappling with their ongoing philosophical disagreement will continue to create tensions between a faction that believes conservatism means doing the business of compassion more efficiently in pursuit of a vaguely defined public good, and one which believes it’s more important to restrain the warping effects of government and return the government to the role it occupied for most of American history, before LBJ set us on the path toward an unsustainable entitlement state… which was, if you think about it, entirely justified at the time if you adopted Gerson’s approach.
Here’s a hint: If your approach to conservative governance would justify the Great Society, it’s usually a sign you took a wrong turn somewhere. Maybe because the lights were all green.
[First published at The Federalist.]