If you haven’t been following the conversation among William Voegeli, Geoffrey Kabaservice, Stephen Hayward, and David Frum about Voegeli’s lead article in the most recent Claremont Review of Books, you’re missing out. (See here for some prior excerpts and discussion on these pages. Also, if you’re interested in books, conservatism, or both, consider subscribing to CRB.)
My sentiments lie with Voegeli and Hayward, but Kabaservice’s rallies in his latest installment with this concluding observation:
The attempt to build a Republican Party that is "both principled and electorally viable" is a tricky balance, no doubt. But the GOP won’t be an electoral or governing majority again until it allows some room for moderates, regains a positive vision of government, and recovers its belief that the conservative who is furthest to the right is not necessarily the most authentic Republican.
Emphasis mine. Indeed, my humble suggestion is that the GOP find time in its agenda of standing athwart history yelling stop to advance its positive vision. (Marco Rubio’s been doing a fantastic job this week in carrying the water on the immigration discussions.) Earned wealth, opportunity, economic growth, individualism, responsibility, and community don’t thrive untended. In fact, fierce individualism and community appear at odds with one another on their face; same with opportunity and the form of economic growth that relies heavily on big, rent-seeking business. Conservatives can advance these causes on limited government-octane, but not without some rejiggering under the hood. Or to paraphrase Kabaservice, Republicans can advance a positive vision for conservatism and still put the government on a diet, but not if they insist on chopping off its head.
David Frum also poses some serious challenges to conservative “extremism”:
Here it seems to me is the core problem: the big winners under the American fiscal system are the elderly, the rural, and the affluent—Republican constituencies. It’s not easy to balance the budget or shrink government spending to any significant degree in ways that don’t pinch Republican voters much harder than they pinch Democratic voters.
To escape that reality, some conservative thought leaders have constructed an alternative reality. In this alternative reality, "welfare" not Medicare is the number one social spending cost.
His point is well taken, but in fairness to conservatives, the deck has been stacked. I wrote recently that we work within an unintelligible nomenclature—a Tower of Babel—in which we have rights to generally be left alone, but also rights to demand certain tangible things, like money, food, and health care. Philosophically, this is nonsense: the same word, “rights,” cannot mean both things [can they?]. One of those definitions must be incorrect. Yet we plod ahead, trying to make sense of our president when he cites the founding philosophy of natural rights derived from nature and nature’s God to support a modern philosophy of positive rights derived from government.
Back to Frum. Health care, particularly for the elderly, has taken hold for now as a “right.” Welfare, on the other hand, has not, at least not to the same degree. So it seems unfair to insist that conservatives must rail against both equally, knowing full well that attacking the former amounts to political suicide. A political party is encouraged to be philosophically consistent, but it can be excused for some inconsistency and prudence when it comes to policies that, for the time being at least, have become cloaked in “rights” language. Taking a fair crack at such policies means addressing philosophical questions that make the voting public’s eyes glaze over. And this is why Republicans are waiting for their own “The One” to come along who will capture the people’s imagination and make that philosophy-of-rights conversation possible. That is the only way we can start asking whether we want to pay for these policies, instead of merely how to pay for them.
I got the opportunity to meet and have dinner with Tod Kelly and commenter Mr. McSnarkSnark last night, where Tod asked me why I’d disagree with him that America is not fundamentally flawed. We agree, after all, that America is great, distinctive, exceptional. What is so wrong about where we are? He has a point. For all our problems, America is still a great country. The problems that I complain about, and that other conservatives—including those like Voegeli and Hayward and other so-called “extremists”—complain about, are latent. Many of the tangible problems conservatives talk about are merely symptoms. Perhaps our economic problems will find us becoming Greece, but even that would not get to the heart of the complaints of serious conservatives. Let me try to explain:
If every volume of the Supreme Court Reporter burned and we suddenly were left with only the written Constitution and its amendments, many of our institutions would suddenly be illegitimate. To some, we might say “good riddance.” Others, however, are vital if we are to sustain the modern economy and civil rights to which we’ve grown accustomed. The point is, it is a good thing that we have these institutions that the written Constitution arguably does not permit. But it is not a good thing that we have not formally amended the Constitution to authorize them, and instead have relied on various crises, “constitutional moments,” and Supreme Court decisions to alter our structure of government. In so doing, the People have been deprived of the benefit of the higher law that safeguards their sovereignty and their natural rights. To paraphrase the exchange in A Man for All Seasons, we have cut a great road through our Constitutional law to achieve arguably needed structural and institutional policies that, at the time, we perceived as too urgent to subject to longsuffering adherence to legal formalities. But in so doing, many of our higher, Constitutional laws are now flat, and though the air is still now, could we stand upright when the winds begin to blow?
Critics suggest conservatism places too much faith in long-dead founders and a fixed Constitution. But the alternative is to place that faith instead in men and women now living. Dead men and documents have certain disabilities, but among them is the inability to betray us. If we forsake the protections they installed for our benefit as against leaders now living, what protections have we reserved to ourselves and, more importantly, to our posterity, against leaders who would breach our trust?
Does this sound like tinfoil-hat conspiracy mongering? Do we live in an age where the people’s sovereignty is quaint, natural rights insufficient, and an enlightened, progressive government trustworthy? Your mileage may vary. But it is not fair to beg the question. Those are fundamental questions, constitutional questions, about the essence of government. They deserve a proper vetting before we can presume to answer them differently than our founders did. That’s the “flaw” in America today. We purport to yield our sovereignty and natural rights by attrition, in tiny increments, such that we hardly notice. Again, not that we haven’t gotten some nice things in return. But we rarely examine very seriously whether it’s worth it.