This piece is part of the Reason Roundtable titled “Is Reform Conservatism a Friend or Foe of Limited Government?“
All those concerned about limited government—conservatives and libertarians—have watched in dismay as the Obama administration has expanded the size, scope, cost, and role of the federal government. They have fought this expansion tooth-and-nail and, since the congressional elections of 2010, have at least managed to restrain it some.
But pure oppositionalism can do little more than restrain the advance of Big Government. It can hardly hope to reverse it, or to advance a different vision of American life, because it lets the Left define the terms of debate and makes the Right forget what it seeks to champion and defend. To achieve enduring reforms, the Right must reconnect with the core principles and assumptions that inform our understanding of politics and apply those to the challenges of our time.
Over the past decade or so, a loose collection of scholars, policy analysts, writers, and politicians has gradually taken shape to do just that. What generally unites its members (myself included), who have come to be called “reform conservatives,” is not a specific policy agenda but a general disposition.
That disposition, at least as I think of it, begins from the conservative view of man and society. Conservatives tend to see the human person as an incorrigible mass of contradictions: a fallen and imperfect being created in a divine image, a creature possessed of fundamental dignity and inalienable rights but always prone to excess and sin and ever in need of self-restraint and moral formation. This view gives conservatives high standards but low expectations of human affairs and makes us wary of utopianism.
It also leaves us more impressed with successful human institutions than we are outraged at failed ones, and therefore makes us protective of our inheritance and eager to build on the longstanding institutions of our society to improve things. We believe, with Edmund Burke and F.A. Hayek, that these institutions embody more knowledge than we can readily perceive and more wisdom than any collection of technical experts, however capable, is ever likely to have.
This anthropology informs our sociology. The conservative vision of society is moved by a low opinion of the capacity of individuals to address complex problems even as it is informed by a high regard for the rights and freedoms of those individuals. So it seeks social arrangements that counterbalance human ignorance and vice while respecting human liberty and dignity. And it finds these in the mediating institutions of a free society—families, communities, civic and religious groups, markets, and more—that stand between the individual and the state.
This regard for mediating institutions is reinforced by our sense of the limits of human knowledge and power. Because we think the human person is something of a mess, and because we think societies and their members flourish through mediating institutions, we are very skeptical of claims of rational control and technocratic management. Large social problems are too complicated to be amenable to centralized, wholesale, technical solutions and instead require decentralized, bottom-up, incremental ones. Societies evolve and improve and solve practical problems not by consolidated jerks of authority from above but by diffuse trial and error from below. Allowing society’s institutions and members the freedom for such efforts is more likely to make society smarter than allowing technical experts to manage large systems.
When a society is allowed to become smarter through such institutions, it usually does so in a particular way: by allowing people to try different approaches to meeting the needs of their fellows, allowing the people who have those needs to choose among the options they are offered, and allowing those choices to matter so that successes are retained and failures go away. These three steps—experimentation, evaluation, and evolution—offer a kind of general recipe for addressing complex social problems while respecting human liberty and acknowledging the limits of human knowledge and power.
The liberal welfare state tries to address large problems without allowing for any of these steps. Administrative centralization and regulatory prescription prevent open experimentation with different ways of providing services, the recipients of services don’t decide what is working and failing, and (thanks to interest-group politics and cronyism) failures rarely go away.
Genuinely competitive markets are ideally suited to following these steps. They offer powerful incentives to try new ways of doing things, the people directly affected decide which ways they like best—and those that they don’t like are left behind. That is why conservatives often reach for the language of markets in public policy—if not necessarily always for actual markets. To the extent possible, they try to replicate in public policy the three-step incremental learning process that allows society to improve by learning from experience.
What has come to be called the conservative reform agenda in recent years largely involves different ways of moving from the welfare-state model to the market-oriented model (or mediating-institutions model) in different arenas of public policy—from K-12 and higher education to health care, entitlement reform, welfare, and more. At the very least, this would involve moving the government away from large managerial roles toward far smaller facilitating ones. But, wherever possible, it would also involve devolving power and resources to the mediating institutions of society.
This would not only reduce the size and scope of government, it would also improve its ability to help society address the challenges it faces, curb opportunities for cronyism and self-dealing, and give people more reasons to play active roles in their communities. Such “reform conservatism” would begin from where we are, but it would seek to change the basic organizing principle of public policy at the federal level, and so to set in motion a vast transformation of the government’s role that would, over time, both restrain the government’s reach and help restore a proper understanding of its aims and limits in our constitutional system.
These are not all new ideas, of course. Indeed, they are applications of very longstanding principles and insights. They are new only in that they answer to changing circumstances—but that difference matters.
Consider tax policy. The next supply-side tax reform should, like past ones, be geared to better supporting growth, lowering rates, providing broad-based tax relief, and reducing distortions in the government’s treatment of differently situated people. In today’s environment, some reform-minded conservatives think this should mean focusing on the business tax code more than conservatives did before taxes on business investment became such conspicuous barriers to growth and competitiveness, emphasizing individual marginal-rate reductions less than we did when rates were much higher, delivering more relief through payroll-tax cuts than we did before payroll taxes became the main sources of most Americans’ tax burdens, and building on past efforts to address the distorting mistreatment of parents in our tax and entitlement systems. So they have floated proposals that combine aggressive pro-growth business tax reforms with a simplified individual code that offers lower income-tax rates and an expanded child credit or significant payroll-tax cut.
I’m certain that those who have been termed reform conservatives don’t all agree on the fine details of any proposal. But we do tend to think that conservatism needs to be more than a brake on liberalism, and that by applying the conservative vision of man and society to the challenges America now confronts, the Right can offer the public a platform that is simultaneously more conservative and more broadly appealing than its agenda has generally been of late.
Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.