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The conservatism of sceptical reform

A new right focuses on social problems, not government

If you just listened to Republican politicians, you’d have almost no sense that conservative thinking has changed much since Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney over a year ago. But if you hang around the conservative policy wonks, and read certain conservative magazines, the picture is quite different. I’d invite you, for example, to cast your eye over the new issue of National Affairs, the right-leaning policy journal edited by Yuval Levin. You’ll find nine different articles that hang together coherently around what could well be the dominant style of conservatism of the coming years. This is the conservatism of sceptical reform.

This conservatism is oriented, first, around social problems, not government. For many years, conservatives spoke as if runaway government was the only major threat facing the country. Defining themselves against government, Republican politicians had no governing agenda for people facing concrete needs.
But the emerging conservatives begin their analysis by looking at concrete problems: how to help the unemployed move to where they can find jobs; how to help gifted students from poor families reach their potential. If you start by looking at these specific matters, then even conservatives conclude that, in properly limited ways, government can be a useful tool. Government is not the only solution, but it is also not the only problem. In the lead essay of the issue, Michael R. Strain looks at broken labour markets. Strain embraces some traditional conservative ideas, like streamlining regulations, but also some ideas that use government power: public investments in infrastructure, more aggressive monetary policy, wage subsidies, cash bonuses for people who get off unemployment insurance and find jobs, relocation subsidies to help the unemployed move.
Second, this conservatism is populist about ends but not means. Over the past decade, many Republican politicians have spread the message that the country’s problems would be easily solved if only the nefarious elites would get out of the way and allow the common people to take over. Members of this conservatism are more likely to conclude that, in fact, problems are complex and there are no easy answers, but there is room for policy expertise, and perhaps philosophical rigour, even if it comes from Washington. But these experts should focus on specific needs and desires of working-class Americans, not gripes and obsessions of the Republican donor community.
Third, this conservatism supports effective government, not technocratic government. Like all proper conservatism, it begins with a sense of epistemological modesty, a sense that the world is too complicated to be centrally planned. Therefore, it opposes the style of government embodied in Obamacare, where officials in the centre define insurance products and then compel people to buy them.
Fourth, this conservatism is sceptical in temper, especially about itself. Recently, conservatives have been filled with fervour and conviction, and regarded compromise as selling out. Some recent conservatives have ideologised the Constitution, turning it into a rigid system that answers every political question for us. But the founders constructed a constitutional order that left room for different policy approaches; that was humble before the evolving needs of the future; and that required compromise and coalition-building.
Today’s emerging conservatives embrace that constitutional mindset, embodied both by Madison and Hamilton. Moreover, the National Affairs authors understand that most policy programmes, like most businesses, fail. Conservative programmes like urban enterprise zones failed to produce measurable results. Liberal programmes like Head Start scarcely produce identifiable long-term gains. Therefore, it is best to approach government in a mood of sceptical reformism: Engage in a constant process of gradual concrete reform even as you are aware that most of your efforts will not pan out.
The Republican style of recent years has produced a vacuum where concrete proposals should be. The emerging conservatives won’t have to argue with or defeat the more populist factions on the right; they can just fill the vacuum. Republican politicians, when they are asked to come up with specific programmes, will find there is no other game in town.
This conservatism knows that central decision-makers, even conservative ones, are no match for complex reality. Therefore, they favour market mechanisms, which take advantage of dispersed knowledge. They prefer simple programmes to complex ones.


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