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May 21, 2015

Reform Conservatism....The Way Forward Or Warmed Over Compassionate Conservatism?

There's a huge debate going on within the conservative wonk class over the direction conservatism should take in the future. It's a debate that occasionally pops into the more mainstream discussions but is really being played out in think tanks and presidential campaign policy shops.

In the broadest strokes the "reform conservatives," who despite their protestations, represent the "compassionate conservative" view of government as an important player in people's lives. They basically think the federal government should focus on targeted policies (like larger child tax credits) as well as "empower" and fund institutions at the state and local level to help people navigate this messy thing called life.

Here's Yuval Levin, one of the recognized leaders of the "reformicon" camp writing in Reason's roundtable on the nature of "reform conservatism".

This regard for mediating institutions is reinforced by our sense of the limits of human knowledge and power. Because we think the human person is something of a mess, and because we think societies and their members flourish through mediating institutions, we are very skeptical of claims of rational control and technocratic management. Large social problems are too complicated to be amenable to centralized, wholesale, technical solutions and instead require decentralized, bottom-up, incremental ones. Societies evolve and improve and solve practical problems not by consolidated jerks of authority from above but by diffuse trial and error from below. Allowing society's institutions and members the freedom for such efforts is more likely to make society smarter than allowing technical experts to manage large systems.

When a society is allowed to become smarter through such institutions, it usually does so in a particular way: by allowing people to try different approaches to meeting the needs of their fellows, allowing the people who have those needs to choose among the options they are offered, and allowing those choices to matter so that successes are retained and failures go away. These three steps—experimentation, evaluation, and evolution—offer a kind of general recipe for addressing complex social problems while respecting human liberty and acknowledging the limits of human knowledge and power.

Representing the competing camp, generally considered Libertarian-populism or in Charles Cooke's formulation "Conservatarian", is Ben Domenich.

As the 21st Century conservatism's most industrious public intellectual and the leading voice for reform conservatism, Yuval Levin has presented a thoughtful and philosophically consistent essay underpinning the disparate ideas that have come to be regarded as the "reform conservative" agenda. He attempts a challenging feat: to offer a coherent and an inspirational case for what are effectively a series of dry public policy white papers. But when you set Levin's deep understanding of conservatism alongside the modern poll-tested policy bullet points of reform conservatism, the weakness of the reformocon agenda become readily apparent. Levin's lofty governing philosophy is at odds with the incongruent grab bag of policies that reformocons offer.

...

Levin's essay is infused with this tension. In the first half, we see expressions of common ground with those who believe in limited government: man is fallible and private institutions and markets are best. But in the second half, the policy approaches favor more activist government—which is run by man and inherently non-market—"to help society address the challenges it faces... and give people more reasons to play active roles in their communities." These two views cannot be reconciled, and no amount of "market-oriented" language—in reform conservatism as in Romneycare and Obamacare—can address government's inherent and fundamental flaws.

You really should read both articles and the rest in the series. This is an important debate going on and whichever candidate you wind up supporting in the primary is likely to broadly fall into one of these camps. Well, there's a third camp, the business friendly go-along get along GOP we all know and hate. But enough about Jeb.

Neither essay is terribly long (combined they are shorter than the traditional AoS movie review) but it was hard to pull a reasonable sampling of both because they cover a lot of important ground.

As you might guess, I'm in the Domench camp (save the libertarian love of nearly unfettered immigration). The faith "reformicons" place in nimble and responsive government doesn't exist in the real world. You can say the federal government will simply be a supportive player writing checks to worthy groups but the reality is always different. Government is control and control is destruction. There is no reforming it, there is no guiding it into wise and benevolent action. It's a wild beast that must be kept away from important and breakable things. You can never turn your back on it and you can never give those who claim to be able to use it in way you'll like an inch. It will quickly morph into a mile and you won't like the results. The "mediating institutions" that partner with the reform conservative style of government will find out it's a lot like partnering with the current style of government and they won't like it.

As our Andy so wonderfully put it, the ratchet only ever turns one way. Either you have faith in individuals to be the judge of their desires and the best ways to realize them or you think the government does. It's much more of a zero-sum game than proponents of government "help" on the left and right will ever admit.


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posted by DrewM. at 10:49 AM

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