August 28, 2010
THE POSITIVE TASK IS NOT REACTION BUT REFORM:
The Death of Conservatism Was Greatly Exaggerated: In 2008 liberals proclaimed the collapse of Reaganism. Two years later the idea of limited government is back in vogue. (PETER BERKOWITZ, 8/28/10, WSJ)
Progressives like to believe that conservatism's task is exclusively negative—resisting the centralizing and expansionist tendency of democratic government. And that is a large part of the conservative mission. Progressives see nothing in this but hard-hearted indifference to inequality and misfortune, but that is a misreading.
What conservatism does is ask the question avoided by progressive promises: at what expense? In the aftermath of the global economic crisis of 2008, Western liberal democracies have been increasingly forced to come to grips with their propensity to live beyond their means.
It is always the task for conservatives to insist that money does not grow on trees, that government programs must be paid for, and that promising unaffordable benefits is reckless, unjust and a long-term threat to maintaining free institutions.
But conservatives also combat government expansion and centralization because it can undermine the virtues upon which a free society depends. Big government tends to crowd out self-government—producing sluggish, selfish and small-minded citizens, depriving individuals of opportunities to manage their private lives and discouraging them from cooperating with fellow citizens to govern their neighborhoods, towns, cities and states.
Progressives are not the only ones to misunderstand the multiple dimensions of the conservative mission. Conservatives have demonstrated blind spots, too.
In 2010—in an America in which the New Deal long ago was woven into the fabric of our lives—conservatives can not reasonably devote themselves exclusively to limiting the growth of government. Government must effectively discharge the responsibilities it has had since the founding of the republic, but also those it has acquired over more than two centuries of social, political and technological change.
Those responsibilities include putting people to work and reigniting the economy—and devising alternatives to ObamaCare that will enable the federal government to cooperate with state governments and the private sector to provide affordable and decent health care.
A thoughtful conservatism in America—a prerequisite of a sustainable conservatism—must also recognize that the liberty, democracy and free markets that it seeks to conserve have destabilizing effects. For all their blessings, they breed distrust of order, virtue and tradition, all of which must be cultivated if liberty is to be well-used.
To observe this is not, as some clever progressives think, to have discovered a fatal contradiction at the heart of modern conservatism. It is, rather, to begin to recognize the complexity of the conservative task in a free society.
To be sure, the current conservative revival was not in the first instance inspired by reflection on conservative principles.
Thoughtful conservatism, throughout the Anglosphere and promulgated by parties of both the Left and the Right, seeks to bring principles of liberty and free markets to bear on the New Deal/social welfare net that is inextricably woven into modern Western society.
Posted by Orrin Judd at August 28, 2010 3:10 PM