During the Obama presidency, the national debt has nearly doubled, federal spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product reached a post-World War II record, and the federal government extended its reach in health care, higher education, corporate governance, the energy sector and much else.
President Obama inherited a financial crisis that his defenders insist required an active government response, but as Rahm Emanuel admitted during the transition, Obama would use the crisis to advance his progressive agenda. Republicans have been rightly alarmed, but their alarm has sometimes given way to a careless assault on the whole of government. “We need to shut the damn thing down,” Senator Rand Paul said several weeks ago. Some Republicans have done literally that.
Too often, Republicans express a purely negative vision of government. This is both politically perilous and intellectually inadequate. Republicans oppose the liberal vision of the role of the state because they support a different, conservative vision. They need to articulate that vision, since many presidential voters will be reluctant to give their trust to leaders who have nothing but contempt for the government they wish to run.
To better understand how the conservative approach to government can succeed, consider several significant conservative public policy achievements, which bettered millions of lives.
Start with welfare. The 1996 welfare law (championed by conservatives and signed into law by President Clinton) reversed 60 years of federal policy by ending welfare as an entitlement program. It imposed a five-year time limit on the receipt of benefits, required a large percentage of recipients to seek and obtain work and enhanced enforcement of child support.
The results were astonishing. Within half a decade, the national welfare caseload declined by almost 60 percent while employment figures for single mothers rose and overall poverty, child poverty (including among African-American children) and child hunger decreased.
What’s less well known is that the shift from the old welfare system (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) to the new system (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) initially cost more money. But the point of welfare reform wasn’t just to cut spending; it was to reform a program that was badly serving those it was intended to help. This required government to realign rewards and penalties.
It’s the same story with crime. The violent crime rate has dropped almost in half since 1993, with the homicide and robbery rates each having fallen by more than 50 percent. The drop in crime was not a result of smaller government; it was a result of better and smarter government, including more incarceration, elevated security, better intervention and prevention programs, an increase in police officers per capita, enforcing quality-of-life offenses, more effective identification of criminal patterns and more advanced use of data. (Unlike welfare, where the federal government instituted reforms, in the case of crime most of the reforms were undertaken by state and local governments.)
A third major conservative policy success is the earned-income tax credit. Created during the Ford presidency, it is a federal tax credit for low- and moderate-income working people. It was expanded under Presidents Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush, and today both President Obama and Representative Paul D. Ryan favor a targeted expansion. Last year, the program lifted more than six million people above the poverty line and reduced the severity of poverty for another 21 million people. While costing the government more than $50 billion per year, the earned-income tax credit is the best anti-poverty program we have.
There have been other successes, from tax reform and deregulation in the 1980s to the antidrug efforts in the early 1990s to the school choice movement and the greater market competition introduced into Medicare in the 2000s.
These reforms all shared a rigorous empirical approach. They took into account the fact that people are free and independent yet also act in their self-interest and respond to incentives. They were open to experimentation and adjustment. They measured success by outcomes rather than inputs. And they rejected what Reagan called a “slavish adherence to abstraction” in favor of a commitment to actual achievement. They were driven not by ceaseless hostility to government but by a restrained, realistic vision of its potential.
These lessons can be applied today, when we face an urgent need to reform antiquated and unsustainable programs. Two that have significantly driven up the cost of living for middle-class Americans are health care and higher education.
In health care, government has created a staggeringly inefficient system that often answers to the needs of centralized management rather than consumers. There’s no motivation to provide better care at lower costs. The solution is not for government to define every service or set every price but to infuse health care with market principles, creating competition and giving consumers more choices, not fewer.
Similarly, in higher education, the federal government has pursued policies that allow colleges and universities to maintain what the education writer Kevin Carey calls “their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.” This monopoly has resulted in wildly inflated prices. Republicans, rather than avoiding the issue or talking about cutting student loans, should champion competition by breaking up the accreditation cartel through the creation of an independent accrediting board, enabling students to earn credits in more flexible and cheaper ways.
Structural reforms are also needed in the tax code, elementary and secondary education, the energy sector, and our immigration and financial systems. It’s no surprise that these institutions are inefficient, since many of them were designed — and poorly designed at that — around the middle part of the 20th century, when the country’s demographics and problems were quite different.
What conservatives should be aiming for is not a slightly less costly liberal welfare state or simply slowing government’s one-way ratchet toward progressivism. They should be more ambitious and more creative: transforming government programs to make them more modern, efficient, responsive and accountable — to have them support and encourage individual initiative, not replace it.
Conservatives are rightly proud of our Constitution, yet many of them are disdainful of our government. But the Constitution created our system of government, and our goal in political life should be to reform that government back into one we can be proud of again.
Understanding government in this way, and taking the steps necessary to enable it to work better and therefore regain the trust of the American people, is a worthy calling. And a deeply conservative one, too.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the last three Republican administrations.