What this ex-Bushie gets wrong about conservatism–and Rand Paul

Rand Paul is expanding the Republican base and it’s ticking off Michael Gerson.

Videos by Rare

Jack Hunter already did a fine job of refuting the Washington Post columnist’s points on minority outreach over at Politico Magazine. So let’s set aside electoral arguments and focus instead on Gerson’s solutions.

He declares that the GOP needs “an alternative to Paul.” What does he have in mind?

I think the answer can be found in an essay Gerson co-wrote with Peter Wehner in National Affairs earlier this year. Titled “A Conservative Vision of Government,” it’s a manifesto in which Gerson and Wehner try to navigate the channel between libertarianism and welfare-state liberalism to produce a “truly conservative vision of government.”

In a column complementing the essay, Gerson argues that the Tea Party always sees a red light when it comes to government action, when what conservatives really need is “a yellow light: careful, measured public interventions to encourage the health of civil society.” When should those interventions occur? It’s a tricky question: “There are no simple rules here,” Gerson says.

A yellow light might seem like a departure from movement conservatism, which has tended to regard government as an obstruction to individual achievement and growth. But the core of conservatism has always been a preference for gradual change rather than seismic reform—evolution versus revolution, if we’re trying to be catchy. Gerson is calling for this principle to be applied to the feds. Government is here to stay, so we may as well ensure that it grows cautiously and achieves the right ends.

What’s wrong with that?

A lot.

First, the notion that it’s not the conservative’s job to stop the growth of the state is absurd. The Constitution contains a garland of bright red lights hung in front of government. Gerson and Wehner try to skip over them by noting that the Framers “did not—unlike some anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution—view government as an evil, or even as a necessary evil.”

But that ignores the Anti-Federalists most important contribution: the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment begins “Congress shall make no law,” not “Congress shall only make laws ponderously and after much notation in their Edmund Burke texts.”

Those red lights were put in place because the Founders understood that government, given a yellow light, will usually pretend it’s green and barrel through it. This is how a seemingly sensible program like Social Security disability insurance grew into a $135 billion buffet for fraudsters or how Richard Nixon’s EPA became a towering regulation printer belching out new hassles for impoverished West Virginians. Government programs aren’t inherently modest; they’re naturally inclined to expand and perpetuate themselves. An open approach in which “there are no simple rules” is a license for government to continue to burgeon.

Gerson and Wehner also correctly argue that people require the support of institutions to flourish. This is a classic conservative argument and it’s absolutely true: man is not an island and needs his family, friend groups, and schooling to mature and function in society.

But then comes a disorienting step too far. The two contend that “one of those institutions is and must be government—effective, respected, and limited.” And they compare the plight of government to that of the family: “Just as the breakdown of family structures does not prove the illegitimacy of family life but instead points to the urgency of its revitalization,” they write, “the alternative to government overreach is not the dogmatic disparagement of government but the restoration of government to its proper and honored place in American life.”

Good grief. When it comes to racking up $17 trillion in debt or coercing fully grown adults, the family comes up rather short. This is the federal bureaucracy we’re talking about, not the Episcopalian Church or the Shady Grove Kickball League.

And this is where Gerson and Wehner make their most fatal mistake: they cast government as just another institution for the benefit of mankind. Federal power can be used to make people better—it’s a notion that has more in common with technocratic progressivism than it does American conservatism.

Just because the aim of a government action is something conservatives think is virtuous, like buttressing the family, doesn’t make it right and doesn’t mean it will achieve its intended goal.

We have a blueprint for how yellow-light conservatism turns out: the Bush administration, which never even pretended to be influenced by libertarianism and in which Gerson and Wehner both worked. Bush left a destabilizing war in Iraq, an education policy that was an undeniable failure, Medicare reform that produced $12 trillion in red ink, and debt from here to oblivion.

These grand plans to improve society don’t work, whether they’re engineered with a right-wing scalpel or a left-wing sledgehammer.

This isn’t to say that government should be mindlessly maligned. But after a decade of energetic government policy that left the public purse in debt, the economy in tatters, and Mesopotamia in flames, the reasonable—some would say Burkean—response is not to try again more carefully. It’s to acknowledge that this time the federal government really has burst its belt, and work to shrink it and expand the private sphere where it can’t reach.

Rand Paul seems to understand that. Michael Gerson keeps running red lights.

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The truth behind the Facebook messenger app

Your guide to smartphones and data plans in 2014