Published on January 1, 2014
The past few years have put the size and role of government at center stage of our national politics. But the raging debates about how much Washington is doing and spending have involved almost exclusively yes-or-no questions about the left’s vision of government. The right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of, but it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do.
It is not hard to see why. The Obama years have set a high-water mark for the size and reach of the federal government, including a post-World War II record for federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product at 25.2% (for comparison, the post-war average has been 19.8%). The United States has amassed more than $6 trillion in debt since January 2009. Prior to Obama, no president had submitted a budget with a trillion-dollar deficit; he has submitted four of them. And even as the administration’s projections for the coming years promise smaller deficits, they also promise a larger and more expensive government than Americans have ever seen.
The president’s defenders maintain that the circumstances he inherited — an epic financial collapse that drained revenue from the Treasury and exploded the federal deficit — meant he had little choice but to spend our way out of trouble. They are surely right that Obama faced enormous economic challenges, many of which persist. But the president did not simply respond to an economic crisis: He leveraged that crisis to pursue longstanding goals consistent with his liberal ideology. Along the way, he extended the power of the federal government to an unprecedented degree, pushing through the largest stimulus package in history and, in a crowning act, a federal regulatory takeover of health insurance. And the president has always insisted that he would not be satisfied with half measures — that “the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little.”
What might be enough for him? Recall “The Life of Julia,” an interactive infographic released by the Obama campaign during the 2012 presidential race. It followed a fictional woman through every stage of her life from shortly after birth to just after retirement. Each cartoon image demonstrated, and celebrated, her utter dependence on government. Atomized, defenseless individuals sustained by the enfolding embrace of the state: Such, it would seem, is the Obama vision of Americans’ appropriate relation to their government.
The administration’s federal power grabs have hardly gone unopposed, of course. Channeling public alarm, particularly regarding the stimulus and health-care legislation, the Republican Party scored a historic victory in the 2010 mid-term elections. Since then, the Republican-controlled House has sought to restrain and re-limit government, including championing key reforms to Medicare. And Republican lawmakers have provided an effective counterweight to presidential overreach — significantly restraining spending since 2011 and preventing further leftward legislative leaps.
Republicans have argued that unrestrained spending, and particularly unreformed entitlements, will burden the nation with unmanageable levels of debt in the coming decades and starve the budget of funds for other essential purposes. They further contend that a large, meddlesome, intrusive state not only undermines the private economy but also crowds out civil society and enervates civic character.
They have therefore been fairly clear, and quite emphatic, about what they believe the government should not be doing. But if it is true, as they have argued, that the Democrats’ vision is a travesty of American government, then what is the proper and appropriate extent and purpose of that government?
Conservatives in recent years have not done enough to answer this question, and as a result have offered voters an oppositional view of government that, while perhaps stoking worry and resentment, is insufficient to build public trust in the prospect of a conservative government. And such a negative approach to the question of the role of government is not only electorally insufficient — it is unbecoming of conservatism and of the deep commitment that conservatives claim to the nation’s founding ideals.
THE ANTI-GOVERNMENT PARTY
Among some conservatives, the problem at times seems to run deeper than a failure to articulate a vision of government. Particularly among libertarians and some of those conservatives who identify with the Tea Party movement, government overreach has found its mirror image in fierce anti-government fervor.
That impulse is itself nothing new on the American right; what is different today is both its intensity and its widening appeal within conservative ranks. It involves a rhetorical zeal and indiscipline in which virtually every reference to government is negative, disparaging, and denigrating. It is justified by an apocalyptic narrative of American life: We are fast approaching a point of no return at which we stand to lose our basic liberties and our national character. “We have a couple of years to turn this country around,” according to Texas senator Ted Cruz, “or we go off the cliff to oblivion.” Obamacare, added 2012 GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, is evidence of a “police state.” In the struggle to conserve our liberty, it is now or never.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this prominent wing of the conservative coalition seems to regard conservatives who demur from its approach as themselves part of the problem, if not the main obstacle to its solution. Unwilling to see the extremity of the moment, and declining to support the all-out effort to confront it (for example, by shutting down the government in an effort to defund Obamacare), such conservatives and Republicans are accused of having objectively joined the other side.
This view is intensely felt — understandably, given the provocations of the last five years. It is, however, not only an incomplete understanding of the situation but a distortion of it, and an obstacle to achieving a properly conservative governing vision that will command the respect and win the support of a majority of the American people.
For conservatives who want to regain that support, and for Republicans who want a chance to govern, a crucial first step is to see the inadequacy of the oppositional and negative approach to the question of the government’s purpose and role. It is inadequate not simply because it fails to give Republicans enough to offer voters. It is inadequate because it does not amount to a conservative vision — on historical, philosophical, or practical grounds.
THE FOUNDERS AND THE STATE
At the heart of the oppositional view of government espoused by some libertarians and Tea Party leaders is a particular version of American history. Our national recovery, they insist, depends on returning to the governing philosophy of the American founders as it is embodied in the Constitution.
Many self-described leaders of the Tea Party movement seem to share the view expressed by Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, authors of Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, that “[f]irst and foremost, the Tea Party movement is concerned with recovering constitutional principles in government.” Sarah Palin — former Alaska governor, 2008 GOP vice-presidential candidate, and Tea Party favorite — has said that to find the proper principles for America’s resurgence we should “go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant.” Utah senator Mike Lee, when running for office in 2010, summarized the attitude of many Tea Party candidates and activists when he said, “As your U.S. senator, I will not vote for a single bill that I can’t justify based on the text and the original understanding of the Constitution, no matter what the court says you can do.”
A recovery of constitutional ideals is, to be sure, a worthwhile endeavor — but it does not point quite where these leaders and activists often suggest. The federalist founders were indeed wary of the concentration of power in the federal government. At the same time, however, they did not — unlike some anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution — view government as an evil, or even as a necessary evil. Indeed, the most influential of the founders scorned such a view, referring to the “imbecility” of a weak central government (in the form of the Articles of Confederation) compared to a relatively strong central government (which is what the Constitution created). In their view, government, properly understood and properly framed, was essential to promoting what they referred to as the “public good.”
It was in order to approximate this public good that James Madison, the key figure in the drafting of the Constitution, believed in a limited national government with requisite and adaptable powers. Citing (in Federalist No. 10) the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community,” he had in mind the interests of the whole republic, now and in the future . A “good government,” he added in Federalist No. 62, “implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” Madison’s system was intended to employ such means to achieve that end. The Constitution did not simply create limits on government, as some of today’s conservative rhetoric seems to imply; it created a strong if bounded central government. It is important to speak up when those boundaries are breached, but it is important, too, to remember the aims of that government.
Madison acknowledged the positive need for a national government. So did Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, George Washington, and the other strong constitutionalists. This government was not meant to be frozen in amber. It would have the ability to adapt as necessary to meet citizens’ needs as those needs were expressed through representative government.
Some made this case more explicitly than did Madison (who nevertheless went so far as to support the Virginia Plan, which would have granted the central government the right to veto all state legislation). Hamilton, for instance, envisioned a strong commercial republic whose growing needs would require the federal government to promote the general welfare not only through those powers that were expressly stipulated but also those that were implied. “In construing a constitution,” said Hamilton, “it is wise, as far as possible, to pursue a course, which will reconcile essential principles with convenient modifications.”
For the most part, Washington endorsed Hamilton’s more expansive view of a government that would need to act (as Hamilton put it) in a “vast variety of particulars, which are susceptible neither of specification nor of definition” in advance. Even Thomas Jefferson, who was more skeptical of a strong federal authority, eventually made his own “convenient modifications.” As president, Jefferson managed to conclude the Louisiana Purchase without amending the Constitution to permit so massive an exercise of federal power.
The founders, then, provided us with a strong governing system — strong precisely because it could adapt to changing circumstances. The government created in the late 18th century by the inhabitants of a coastal, agrarian republic was designed to accommodate the development of a more spacious and ambitious nation: an eventuality that many of the founders foresaw and embraced. “We should consider that we are providing a Constitution for future generations, and not merely for the peculiar circumstances of the moment,” said James Wilson, a major force in drafting the Constitution and perhaps the most expressly “conservative” among the framers. John Rutledge told his colleagues that “[a]s we are laying the foundation for a great empire, we ought to take a permanent view of the subject and not look at the present moment only.” “In framing a system which we wish to last for ages,” Madison told the Constitutional Convention, “we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.” And Hamilton, in Federalist No. 34, wrote:
In pursuing this inquiry, we must bear in mind that we are not to confine our view to the present period, but to look forward to remote futurity. Constitutions of civil government are not to be framed upon a calculation of existing exigencies, but upon a combination of these with the probable exigencies of ages, according to the natural and tried course of human affairs. Nothing, therefore, can be more fallacious than to infer the extent of any power proper to be lodged in the national government from an estimate of its immediate necessities. There ought to be a CAPACITY to provide for future contingencies as they may happen; and as these are illimitable in their nature, so it is impossible safely to limit that capacity.
It was in this spirit that they were able to leave to future leaders the resolution of certain inconsistencies in the American system, the gravest and most poisonous of them being the issue of slavery.
This is hardly to say that the founders, magically transported to the age of Obama, would approve of the current size and scope of the federal government. Nor is it to say that the founders were unconcerned about concentration of power; to the contrary, they were deeply concerned about it, which is why they created a system of checks and balances and the separation of powers. It is to say, however, that they would have little toleration for politicians who are committed to abstract theories even when they are at odds with the given world and the welfare of the polity — who fail to differentiate between conserving the system by adapting it to changing circumstances and undermining the system by breaking with its fundamental aims and outlook.
The case against the aggrandizement of federal power must be made in the context of the case in favor of appropriate federal power — not in the service of a theory that leaves far too little room for genuine self-government.
THE LEGITIMATE OBJECT
In important respects, Abraham Lincoln continued the philosophical arc of the framers of the Constitution. No president revered the founders as much, spoke about them as often, or read them as closely as did Lincoln. His presidency “undertook no permanent reconstitution of the federal government on Leviathan-like proportions,” writes the scholar Allen Guelzo — but Lincoln insisted, as the founders did, that government adjust to shifting circumstances. And he believed, as they did, in a federal government strong enough to achieve large national purposes.
For Lincoln, those purposes included the transcontinental railroad, “land-grant” college legislation, the National Banking Act, tariffs, and the imposition of temporary federal personal income taxes to cover the cost of the Civil War. He also believed the federal government should play a key role in promoting ownership and entrepreneurship: the foundations of a free economy. Most famously, and in direct continuity with Washington and Hamilton, he believed the federal government should be powerful enough to protect itself from dissolution in the name of state sovereignty.
Lincoln’s governing philosophy, however, ran even deeper than that, extending beyond that of the founders in a direction that prefigured some of the policy developments of 20th-century America. In what is known as his “Fragments on Government,” he wrote:
The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities.
Among the things requiring the “combined action” of government in Lincoln’s view were “public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.” Government, Lincoln went on to say, “is a combination of the people of a country to effect certain objects by joint effort”; he included in those objects of joint effort “providing for the helpless young and afflicted.” Nor did he shrink from the financial implications of so large a role. “The best framed and best administered governments,” he acknowledged, “are necessarily expensive.”
Lincoln therefore understood the role of government (though of course not necessarily the federal government) to be to help those who cannot individually do for themselves, to advance justice in an unjust world, and to lift up the weakest members of society. Lincoln would later say that “government is not charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world” but that it “rightfully may, and, subject to the constitution, ought to, redress and prevent, all wrongs which are wrongs to the nation itself.”
It speaks well of conservatives that they want to be thought of as the defenders of the Constitution. But at a minimum, “constitutional conservatives” should recognize what both the federalist founders and Lincoln actually envisioned for the republic they created and preserved. They were, on the whole, rigorous, empirical, modern thinkers, as well as sober and skeptical heirs of the Enlightenment, who believed they were fortunate to inhabit an age of progress. Far from being constrained by the prevailing physical, political, or economic arrangements of America in 1787, the founders fully expected America to spread across a continent, undergo economic and social change, and emerge as a global actor. And they purposely designed a constitutional system that could accommodate such ambitions.
Of course, this does not answer the question of how big the federal government should be, or what precisely it should and should not do. But it does warn against short-circuiting that discussion with overly simplistic and legalistic appeals to the Constitution as a purely limiting document. Our debates about what government ought to do must be debates about what we take our constitutional order to be and what we think are appropriate national goals. Such questions should be addressed through the political process established by the Constitution; we cannot expect them all to be settled in detail simply through direct interpretation of the Constitution’s text. These national questions require a governing vision. As political scientist James Ceaser of the University of Virginia has put it:
Many conservatives need to resist the temptation to “ideologize” the Constitution by imagining that their political theory is not just permitted under it, but dictated by it. It cannot be forgotten that the Constitution was instituted to replace the Articles of Confederation in order to allow for the exercise of broad powers in certain areas. How such powers are to be used is left to the winners of elections, who are entitled to promote their ideas of good government within the boundaries of the supreme law. If conservatives believe that some of these powers are being exercised in an undisciplined way, it is for a conservative party to make this case. The Constitution cannot do all the work that a party must do on its own. To think otherwise, and to hold that courts could enforce most conservative doctrines, amounts to legalistic thinking with a vengeance.
Many of the functions of the modern-day federal government, including Social Security and other social-service programs, were not envisioned by the framers, nor did the enumerated powers of the Congress specifically comprehend such programs. But neither do these federal roles violate a principle of our system or run counter to the prescient mindset of the founders. The federalist founders created and interpreted a constitutional system that allowed for the emergence of modern America, one in which the federal government would be strong enough to shape global events and to guarantee a minimal provision for the poor, ill, and elderly. Such federal roles may require examination and reform, but they are not inherently illegitimate.
It is a wonder of history, and one of the greatest contributions of America’s founders, that they designed a constitution that was, as the University of Pennsylvania’s John J. DiIulio, Jr., has put it, flexible enough to permit, and to encourage, the transition from a slave-holding, horse-and-carriage society dominated by a few million Anglo-Protestants to a high-tech, free society of more than 300 million demographically diverse citizens. They did it by embodying in the constitutional system a profound and sophisticated vision of government and of government’s relation to the life of the nation and the lives of its people.
LAW AND CHARACTER
The relationship between the government and the lives of its people is a particularly challenging problem in our time. The overreach of the Obama years has given form to the left’s powerful desire to manage and manipulate those realms of life that, in our country, have generally been left within the purview of the family, civil society, and local community. The natural response on the right has been to recoil from the very idea that government should play any role in the moral formation of citizens — which is, after all, what happens in that space between the individual and the state where these institutions operate.
Such complete neutrality is impossible, however, because political and governmental institutions are inherently and unavoidably a part of the larger fabric of society. To insist that federal policy express no preferences or priorities about the moral lives of the people is to consign us to a politics that undermines those moral lives, rather than one that gives them room to thrive. Public policy designed without regard to its moral implications is not neutral but destructive of society’s moral architecture.
One need not subscribe fully to Aristotle’s belief in the vital role of the state in the pursuit of virtue and excellence to acknowledge that many of our laws have a moral component. By definition, laws shape habits, values, and sensibilities — not every law, not all the time, but enough to play a decisive role in the formation of our national character and the individual characters of our citizens. Effective legislation often has a moral, or character-forming, component.
A concrete example from the recent past is the 1996 welfare-reform law, one of the most successful pieces of social legislation in generations. At the heart of the reform was a moral, not an economic, argument: The wrong sort of welfare had helped to create a culture of dependency, which enervated character, and which in turn harmed individuals, families, and society. The goal of welfare reform, with its work requirements and time limits, was not to save money (and it didn’t save much); it was to foster self-reliance and dignity. It was to replace the wrong sort of welfare with the right sort of welfare. And it worked. In short order, welfare rolls went down and work-participation rates went up. The state took upon itself the task of bettering people’s lives, registered a notable degree of success at this task, and bettered society as a result.
Over the years, our laws on civil rights, crime and incarceration, welfare, marriage, religious liberty, and much else have similarly helped to shape the dispositions and habits of the polity — often, if not always, for the better. In many cases, state action has become unavoidable. Some forms of liberty — say, the freedom to destroy oneself with hard drugs or to exploit other men and women in the sex trade — not only degrade human nature but damage and undermine families and communities and ultimately deprive the nation of a competent, self-governing citizenry. These are all public matters.
Is the state always wise or successful in influencing the values and habits of the nation? Hardly. The nation’s experiment with the prohibition of alcohol sales, for instance, proved the futility of trying to alter widespread and deeply rooted social practices, and instead generated seriously counterproductive outcomes. Where issues of marriage and abortion are concerned, American citizens remain deeply divided on the proper course, and the moral and social effects, of government policy.
What these examples illustrate, however, is not the illegitimacy of government action but the need for modest expectations and for getting policies right. Here, as in so many areas, the proper measure of action is prudence. If Prohibition was a disaster in one direction, so, in the other direction, would be the licensing of methamphetamines and heroin for sale at every convenience store.
Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries, which is why a conservative political philosophy cannot be reduced to untrammeled libertarianism. Citizens are cultivated by institutions: families, religious communities, neighborhoods, and nations. Parents and spouses, churches and synagogues, teachers and coaches, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are among the foremost shapers of citizens in our republic. But government has a necessary (if limited) role in reinforcing the social norms and expectations that make the work of these civil institutions both possible and easier. That role can involve everything from enforcing civil-rights laws, to saving the elderly from indigence, to restricting the availability of addictive substances.
The implications of this approach are not only moral and cultural; they are also economic. Just as citizens must be prepared for the exercise of liberty, individuals must be given the skills and values — the social capital — that will allow them to succeed in a free economy. That is the essence of opportunity: a traditionally conservative, indeed a Lincolnian, goal.
But here we must be attentive to distinctions that are too often lost or muddled in today’s debates and that implicate liberals and conservatives alike. Conservatives believe not in equal results — a goal that leads to an excessive concentration of government power and to shared economic mediocrity — but in equality of opportunity. Government holds some responsibility for creating the ground for that equality of opportunity, which is not a natural condition. But government oversteps itself, creating corrosive resentments and economic havoc, when it tries to guarantee equality of results. Often, the damage extends to government’s intended beneficiaries.
If conservatives are rightly at odds with liberals on this point, however, many conservatives fail to see the extent to which equal opportunity itself, a central principle of our national self-understanding, is becoming harder to achieve. It is a well-documented fact that, in recent years, economic mobility has stalled for many poorer Americans, resulting in persistent intergenerational inequality. This phenomenon is more complex than an income gap. It involves wide disparities in parental time and investment, in religious and community involvement, and in academic accomplishment. These are traceable to a number of factors, including the collapse of working-class families, the flight of blue-collar jobs, and the decay of neighborhoods that once offered stronger networks of mentorship outside the home.
Dysfunctional institutions routinely betray children and young adults. Children raised in communities filled with chaos and disorder — where the schools are broken and the streets are violent and drug use is prevalent — face enormously difficult odds. The consequences for children who come from failing communities are all the more severe now that advances in technology have moved us toward an economy that favors skilled over unskilled labor. Tremendous effort and creative policy will be required to fix the institutions that can restore such communities and with them the level playing field of equal opportunity.
Most conservatives, if pressed on these matters, would concede the propriety of some government role in helping create the conditions necessary for individuals and institutions to succeed. For too many in the libertarian and Tea Party wings of the GOP, however, such concessions are at best made grudgingly. These conservatives, if left to their own devices, would say almost nothing about these matters. And so crucial realities — the fact of increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility — tend to be swept under the rug. For too many, government’s obligation to protect individual liberty comes first, second, and last, while concepts such as the common good, despite bearing their own conservative pedigree, are regarded as so much liberal claptrap.
Protecting individual liberty is indeed an indispensable role of government. But it is not the only role.
A POSITIVE GOVERNING VISION
In many ways, the populist and libertarian reactions to the Obama presidency are understandable, helpful, and quintessentially American. Millions of citizens are convinced, not without reason, that their government has aggrandized itself and pushed us ever closer to the regimented and failed model of European-style social democracy. Resistance to this trend has been a critical source of political energy, passion, and engagement over the last few years.
A truly conservative response to the advance of a liberal or progressive ideology, however, would not involve the adoption of an opposite and equally narrow ideology. Just as the breakdown of family structures does not prove the illegitimacy of family life but instead points to the urgency of its revitalization, 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.
It is historically erroneous to regard America’s founders as proto-libertarians. Hamilton warned about “a zeal for liberty more ardent than enlightened,” while Madison cautioned that “liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.” Similarly mistaken are exaggerated claims of galloping tyranny and utopian visions of a wholesale dismantling of much of the modern state. None of this lays a foundation for an appealing public philosophy. American citizenship has evolved around the exercise of liberty in a complex, mutually dependent web of institutions. One of those institutions is and must be government — effective, respected, and limited.
The purpose of the state is to keep society safe and strong; to protect us from outsiders and from each other; to maximize freedom in a way that is consistent with security and order and that advances the common good; to provide society’s “mediating institutions” the space they need to thrive; to encourage equal opportunity for all citizens; and to make a decent provision for the poorest and most vulnerable. All of this is meant to allow people to flourish and to advance human happiness. As Madison said, “Justice is the end of government.”
The case for limited government is rooted in this understanding of government’s purpose. In most circumstances, limited government is preferable to intrusive government because the former advances the public good and serves the common interest. The Constitution places meaningful limits on government power for a reason — to prevent tyranny, yes, and to advance self-government, of course, but also to promote the general welfare and to form a more perfect union. Limited government deserves to be embraced because it is a means (a system of government) to an end (the happiness and flourishing of the people).
Government should, as a first resort, set the table for private action and private institutions — creating a context in which social and civic institutions can flourish. People are right to be generally skeptical of centralized government action because the world is too complicated to be run by technocrats and planners. Limited government is more often good government; and it is good government because it secures individual liberty, takes into account human nature and people’s self-interestedness, and allows people to pursue their potential and achieve great things that improve lives beyond their own.
Conservatism is heavily context dependent, however, so when private institutions are enervated or insufficient in scale — perhaps in part because of unwise government policies, though often for reasons that go beyond government — society has a duty to respond, including with public and not merely private actions. When communities are in crisis, to simply pull government away would allow those communities to decline or collapse, and pull down innocent lives in the process. And historical context should matter. The institutional arrangements appropriate to 18th-century Massachusetts are going to be very different than the institutional arrangements appropriate to inner-city Chicago in the 21st century.
The key to the art of governing is to figure out when government should pull back and when it should engage, and when it engages, precisely how it should do so. In other words: Does government have an appropriate role to play in a particular situation?
Health care provides an example. Advances in medical technology, health-care infrastructure, and national wealth have made health care a different type of social good than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a legitimate and appropriate public goal to ensure broad access to modern health care. But the first instinct of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act was centralization and heavy regulation, inviting a cascade of unintended consequences. The proper conservative reaction is not to imagine a government stripped of public obligations when it comes to the health of citizens. It is to propose an alternative health-care plan that doesn’t centralize all power in Washington and that keeps costs down, solves the problem of insuring those with pre-existing conditions, and reduces the number of uninsured.
The real problem in much of American government is not simply that it is too big but rather that it is antiquated, ineffective, and ill-equipped to handle the most basic functions appropriate for a great and modern country. America’s education system too often fails to adequately prepare workers for global competition. Our tax code, our physical infrastructure, and our immigration system are badly misaligned with obvious economic needs and desires. Our entitlement system threatens over time to consume the federal budget and undercut other indispensable purposes of government.
Each of these institutions needs to be improved and modernized. Conservatives should offer a menu of structural reforms that do not simply attack government but transform it on conservative terms. And they should connect these reforms to the larger purpose of “the happiness of the people,” thus bringing us back full circle to the founders.
Conservatives have accomplished this before. In the 1990s, a cadre of conservative political leaders achieved remarkable success against three seemingly intractable problems: welfare dependency, drug use, and violent crime. They did so not by simply scaling back government’s involvement but by implementing better public policies at the federal, state, and local levels. We have already mentioned the 1996 welfare reform, which grew out of ambitious reform efforts by several Republican governors. To take another example, the massive drop in crime from which Americans are still benefiting was attributable to such Republican-initiated policies as an increase in police presence per capita, improvements in policing techniques, the incarceration of dangerous criminals, and measures addressing urban disorder and vandalism.
A no less innovative and constructive spirit of governance can be found among some conservatives today, particularly at the state level. Governor Scott Walker, for instance, has sought to transform the relationship between the state and its employees in order to better serve Wisconsin’s citizens. Governor John Kasich has spurred job creation through innovative investment incentives and balanced Ohio’s budget without raising taxes. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has dramatically expanded school choice, arguing that it is a means to achieving more equal opportunity (and provoking a cynical attempt by the federal Department of Justice to undermine Jindal’s reform). Governor Chris Christie won an enormously impressive re-election victory in New Jersey based on his record of business tax cuts, reductions in spending, and reforms of the education system (especially those addressing teacher tenure) and the Garden State’s pension and benefit system. All of these rising Republican leaders, along with others in Washington and the states, partake of the same upbeat philosophy: If valued and valid public purposes are going unserved, or positively disserved, by government, the proper response is not to dismantle government but to repair and reform it in a conservative direction.
This approach is also integral to the recovery of Republican electoral prospects, on which the political influence of conservatism depends. While there is plenty of evidence that Americans are disillusioned with modern government, there is no evidence that Americans have turned against the aims of modern government.
The eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson summarized this political reality in a single sentence: “Telling people who want clean air, a safe environment, fewer drug dealers, a decent retirement, and protection against catastrophic medical bills that the government ought not to do these things is wishful or suicidal politics.” Seconding Wilson, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, recently noted that the “government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society….We have to declare peace on the safety net.” Providing such services and securing that safety net does not mean accepting the technocratic mindset of the liberal welfare state. It means replacing that mindset with a conservative approach that puts government on the side of civil society and private enterprise in order to achieve a more just and thriving society.
Conservatives are more likely to be trusted to run the affairs of the nation if they show the public that they grasp the purposes of government, that they fully appreciate it is in desperate need of renovation, and that they know what needs to be done. The American people are deeply practical; they are interested in what works. And they want their government to work. Conservatives know how institutions can and should work in our free society, and they can apply that knowledge to government.
All this leads us to a final reason why conservatives should be engaged in the reform of government. The reputation of government is an important national asset — and an irreplaceable source of national pride. Government overreach by the left has degraded that asset. Today’s hemorrhaging of trust in public institutions, if left to run its course, will only further degrade it. Skepticism toward government is one thing; outright hostility is injurious to the health of American democracy itself. How can citizens be expected to love their country if they are encouraged to hold its government in utter contempt?
Thinking of government as a precious national institution in need of care and reform does not come naturally to many modern-day conservatives. Given the damage that our government is doing to our society, it is easy to understand their anger and frustration. But that is precisely why, especially now, conservatives must make the case that they will give Americans a government, and therefore a country, they can once again be proud of.
Michael Gerson, former policy advisor and chief of speechwriting for President George W. Bush, is a Washington Postcolumnist. Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations.