Re-Booting Conservatism (or, In Which I Disagree With A Friend)

Last week my friend, and Ricochet Member, Duane Oyen posited a question to those of us on the right, asking if it was time to “Re-Boot” conservatism.  The centerpiece of Duane’s post was an article by Dr. Steven Hayward, titled “Modernizing Conservatism.”  Dr. Hayward’s piece, written at the request of The Breakthrough Institute, (an organization which Duane assures us is a “rational liberal” think tank) serves as a companion to a “modernizing liberalism” article.  While Duane concedes that he agrees with a great deal of Dr. Hayward’s ideas, he was curious about how others would react.  

The reaction was swift as the comment thread itself became a bit contentious at times.  But I thought it worth the effort to step back and read Dr. Hayward’s article as dispassionately as possible, taking to heart Duane’s admonition that, “… we also need to look at ourselves or we ourselves are unserious.”  Now to be sure, there are “pet conservatives” here and there whose primary occupation is tearing down those who advance the conservative cause.  Because I don’t count Duane in that category, I’ve spent no small amount of time considering the issues as Dr. Hayward frames them.  

Dr. Hayward begins by citing the recent success of the Tea Party and the 2010 elections, and concludes that we’re in trouble.  “Conservatism,” he says, “is failing on its own terms.”  As indicators, he points to a stagnant minority underclass and a middle class that is not only stagnant, but showing signs of economic regress. “Stagnant income growth and mobility and a shrinking middle class are considered unhealthy by most conservative understandings of social health, cohesion, and well-being,” writes Dr. Hayward, but concludes that these issues, “…have attracted only the attention of Charles Murray.”  A categorical statement of this order, contradicted as it is by virtually every conservative publication and website in the country whose headlines and tables of contents regularly overflow with considered and urgent analysis of the catastrophic condition of the economy on both a macro and micro level, makes Dr. Hayward’s conclusions something less than irresistible, …which is a polite way of saying, “Strike One.”   Yes, these issues are existentially important not only to conservatism, but to the survival of the country itself, which is why so many of us are utterly distraught by the choice in candidates offered to us in 2012.  But Dr. Hayward doesn’t really explain how the tragic indicators he cites can be called a failure of conservatism.  Certainly the policies of the last two and a half years, which have brought the country to its knees, didn’t originate from the right. 

Then comes this statement, which is breathtaking:  

By allowing their well-reasoned and often well-founded critiques of government action to metastasize into a categorical rejection of all prospective government action, while continuing to deny the basic political economy of the welfare state, conservatives increasingly find themselves in an ideological and practical straightjacket.

I, for one, categorically reject the idea that conservatives categorically reject “all prospective government action.”  What conservatives reject is unconstitutional government action.  Conservatives have either proposed or passed, to standing ovations from other conservatives, one prospective government action after another, from  “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” to the Ryan Plan.  The Constitutional distinction is a basic tenet of conservatism, yet curiously absent from Dr. Hayward’s lengthy article.   As to his assertion that conservatives, “…deny the basic political economy of the welfare state…” I know Dr. Hayward is aware of Paul Ryan’s efforts in that very arena because he writes of them approvingly, so I’m at a loss to explain his assertion of a conservative denial.  Strike Two.  

One of the lynchpins of Dr. Hayward’s argument that conservatism needs a restart, is something he describes as the failed “starve the beast” strategy.  This strategy purports to reduce the size of government by reducing revenues into the government.  Indeed, from a 1981 speech by President Reagan, we read;

Over the past decades we’ve talked of curtailing government spending so that we can then lower the tax burden. Sometimes we’ve even taken a run at doing that. But there were always those who told us that taxes couldn’t be cut until spending was reduced. Well, you know, we can lecture our children about extravagance until we run out of voice and breath. Or we can cure their extravagance by simply reducing their allowance.

Conflating tax rates with tax revenues, Dr. Hayward continues; 

Rigorous analyses from centrist economists Christina and David Romer of UC Berkeley, and from libertarian economist (and Reagan White House alumnus) William Niskanen conclude that the starve-the-beast strategy fails. Strikingly, Niskanen’s analysis found that lower taxes correlated with higher levels of federal spending. As a result, Niskanen argues that raising taxes may be the most effective way to reduce government spending.

And that’s really what he seems to be after here; higher taxes.  The paradox of which he writes is really not so striking when you consider the fact that it was the tax rate that Reagan lowered, not tax revenue.  In fact, revenues to the government increased from $517 billion in 1980 to over $1 trillion in 1990, according to the Heritage Foundation.  Adjusted for inflation, that’s an increase of 28%.  The beast, therefore, was never starved.  The government simply blasted through the additional revenue, over President Reagan’s veto, and continued running a deficit.  Strike Three.  

“Thus, conservative attachment to a failing strategy has rendered the Right incapable of reducing government spending,” continues Dr. Hayward, who prefers a “serve the check” approach framed in the manner of making Americans pay for all the government they receive.  In other words, an increased tax burden.  Dr. Hayward’s statement that the current arrangement, “…allows Americans to receive a dollar in government services while only having to pay 60 cents for it,” strikes a discord in the ear of a free man, presuming as it does that the taxpayer is somehow ripping off the government, when in reality it’s the other way around.  From Tea Parties to town halls, from letters to newspapers and across the internet to the wave of citizen legislators we sent to Washington in the last election, we keep telling the government to spend less, and yet somehow we are being allowed some sort of unfair bargain when they spend more?  In the first place, we didn’t order all this stuff off the menu, and we aren’t terribly happy about paying the checks for almost 50% of the population.  Hell, we didn’t even get to read the menu in the case of Obamacare, which was passed against the popular will.  Who, aside from leftists, demanded quantum increases in operating budgets for administrative agencies?  Secondly, increasing the tax burden depresses economic growth which, in turn, can actually depress revenue and further exacerbate the problem of debt, unemployment, economic stagnation, etc.  But in the final analysis, the beast will be starved because we are broke.  Across Europe, governments are, “running out of other people’s money,” as Margaret Thatcher so famously and astutely observed.  Raising the cost to the productive sector is not the answer. 

Again, from Dr. Hayward:

It may be that internal ideological reformation must precede bipartisan political compromise. Ideological extremists in both parties have repeatedly succeeded in scuttling tax and entitlement compromises pursued by moderate reformers in their respective parties, and at the moment, the prospects for any compromises seem remote. 

I’m always intrigued by this kind of language.  The left in general, and President Obama in particular, have shown outright hostility toward the Constitution.  Conservatives, on the other hand, have tried to restore and conserve it.  What is this “extremists in both parties” business, exactly?  I understand that working to undermine the law of the land is indeed extreme, but what is extreme about trying to preserve it?   What part of the Constitution ought we to compromise, exactly?  On a micro level, if we’re going to compromise, how about doing so on the left side of the playing field for a change?  Regarding taxing and spending, the compromise always assumes that both taxes and entitlements will increase and so we compromise on the rate of increase.  This, we are told, is the smart and moderate thing to do.  We pat ourselves on the back, and continue toward the cliff though at a slightly adjusted speed.  Just once, how about telling the left that we will compromise on the rate of decrease?   I suspect that would be labeled, by both the left and some on our own side, as intransigent.  Conservatism doesn’t need a re-boot, but rather a renewed fidelity to the enduring principles that made this nation great.