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May 10, 2013

Big Government Conservatives Strike Back

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it's enemy action.”—Ian Fleming's “Gold Finger”

I was reminded of this quote yesterday when I saw a spate of articles musing on the relationship between conservatives, the federal government and the “common good”.

First, there was Peter Wehner at Commentary arguing that conservatives have become too focused on individualism and less concerned about the “common good”.

The emphasis one hears these days has to do almost solely with liberty, which of course is vital. But there is also the trap of hyper-individualism. What’s missing, I think, is an appropriate appreciation–or at least a public appreciation–for community, social solidarity, and the common good; for the obligations and attachments we have to each other and the role institutions play in forming those attachments.

As I noted at my little blog

Wehner never points to any examples of conservatives retreating from the community. Does he think conservatives are eschewing participation in churches or other religious communities? Have they stopped participating in their children’s schools, Little Leagues, or Scouting programs? Have conservatives abandoned volunteer groups or charities? Are there no conservatives who serve as volunteer firefighters? Or on the local school board?

We are never told by Wehner how conservatives actually have demonstrated a lack of “an appropriate appreciation” for the “common good”. It is simply asserted.

There is one hint as to what Wehner maybe referring to. He speaks of, “the role institutions play in forming those attachments”. Whener never identifies what “institutions” he is taking about but having already identified a number of communal “institutions” I think conservatives are very much attached to, I’d say it’s fair to infer the institution that dare not speak its name is “government”.

Ok, that’s just happenstance.

But lo and behold! Coincidently Matt Lewis publishes a piece the same day entitled, “A conservative defense of government".

While most conservatives concede that we need some social safety net, they are mostly worried about the out-of-control growth of the redistributive state. And yet, too seldom is that distinction made. Instead, the criticism is usually directed at "government." When it comes to government, a lot of conservatives are probably too obsessed with size. Grover Norquist famously wants to shrink government to such a small size that you can drown it in a bathtub.

But I'm not sure most Americans want that. And trying to force it via draconian cuts doesn't work, especially if they don't address the specific problem, such as the need for entitlement reform. "You can't make a fat man skinny by tightening his belt," observed John Maynard Keynes.

Whether you're a conservative who cares about preserving law and order, or a free marketer who appreciates the importance the rule of law plays in providing confidence and incentives to entrepreneurs, you're a fan of government. Stop pretending otherwise.

As Philip Klein pointed out Lewis’ column is a crime against straw men. (Coincidentally, that’s the same charge I made against Wehner).

Why the sudden respect from the right for government and the role it plays in America? Well, that’s where the 3rd piece comes in. It turns out the night before these posts show up, Paul Ryan gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute entitled “Conservatism and Community”.

And there we find our “enemy action”. The pro-government wing of the GOP is laying out its markers in the battle for the future of the party and the conservative movement.

Of the three pieces, I like Ryan’s the best (though in the end the supposed policies he wants to institute to restrain government will lock in place a lot of the big government we already have). He comes at it from the perspective of a politician who wants to convince moderates and liberals of the righteousness of the conservative case.

Wehner is a part of George W. Bush’s big government/”Compassionate Conservatism” group whose only interest in fighting liberals is over which kinds of big government programs we have, not whether or not we should have them.

Lewis strikes me mostly as someone who wants to climb the media food-chain and the easiest way for a conservative to do that is to be the “reasonable conservative” that MSM bookers will bring on to bash actual conservatives.

Make no mistake, there’s a war being fought for direction of the party and the movement. What we saw yesterday is simply one of the many attacks the activist government wing of the GOP/conservative movement are launching in response to the Cruz/Rand Paul “fight to shrink the government” wing.

As I’ve said before, the activist wing makes the most political sense if you’re worried about the 2014, 2016 or any election in the next decade or two. But if you’re interested in challenging and trying to change the underlying big government assumptions of the bi-partisan governing and media classes you’re going to have to take a longer term view of things.

As Ronald Reagan put it, it’s a time for choosing.

Added: A couple of people have pointed to this speech by Mike Lee to say it's along the lines of Ryan's speech. I want to think about it a bit more but I don't agree.

Yes, they have a similar focus and underpinning but Ryan comes off much more as a technocrat who wants to make government work better. As I said in the post, I'm somewhat sympathetic to Ryan's point of view but I think it concedes too much ground to the status quo.

Maybe the biggest difference between Ryan and Lee is just tone but A-I don't think so (Lee voted against the Ryan budget because it grew the size of government) and B- even if it is, tone and emphasis are important things. Lee has the better of both over Ryan.

Keep in mind there are some very big differences between Ryan's plan and Rand Paul's approach (one of them is that Paul's isn't even remotely possible in the current political climate because it aggressively reduces government).

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posted by DrewM. at 01:28 PM

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