Conservatives For Government

In the new issue of National Affairs, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner re-establish government as a conservative value:

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 edmundburke1771-sdthey 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.

What I disliked about the essay was its caricature of Obama’s moderate centrism as over-reaching statist liberalism – but I can see nonetheless why this is a potent rhetorical point to entice some of the more doctrinaire libertarians to take notice. What I liked was its understanding that a conservative movement that sees government – all government – as the enemy is nether conservative nor viable as a vehicle for governance. Coming from a British Tory tradition, of course, my libertarian instincts have always been complemented by a deep belief that government is good, as long as it is not over-stretched, over-spent and devoted to utopian schemes as opposed to pragmatic responses to contingent social, political and economic problems. And these problems will necessarily change from decade to decade, century to century. The trouble with current rigid Republican ideology is that is cannot adjust to this reality. It is an avoidance of thought with respect to grappling with social change in order to sustain a coherent society and polity.

I also requires balance and moderation – two dirty words on the American right. This was a great, Burkean passage:

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.

And those nations also have histories which affect our current way of life. To deny the legacy of slavery and segregation, for example, simply because they no longer exist, is a terribly unconservative thing to believe. It treats a country’s development as an Etch-A-Sketch.

Conservative government, in other words, should be as strong as it is limited, as pragmatic as it is cautious, as empirical as it is open to a broader conversation with liberals and everyone else. It’s great to see this fundamental truth reasserted by Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson. I just hope someone within the conservative movement will listen. My hopes, sadly, are not very high.