The Conscious Conservative

Modernizing Conservatism: A Breakthrough Forum

Last fall, Reagan scholar Steve Hayward declared the conservative movement's starve-the-beast anti-tax strategy a failure. Not only has it failed as a policy, resulting in massive indebtedness and no constraint on the growth of the welfare state, it has failed politically. Soon, he warned, Republicans would be forced to choose between "cuts to popular entitlement programs, deep reductions in national defense spending, and tax increases... It is hard to see how this ends well for conservatives."

The essay served as an electroshock to the libertarian amygdala. While Hayward won plaudits from center-rightists like David Brooks and David Frum, as well as from conservative apostate Andrew Sullivan, Joe Bast of the libertarian Heartland Institute sent Breakthrough Journal a letter, which we publish online today, calling Hayward a "bonehead," and speculating that Hayward is either trying to preserve a dying Reagan coalition (between neocons and libertarians), or just looking for "something to talk about with liberals at cocktail receptions."

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Hayward Diagnoses Conservatism’s Ills

Jonathan H. Adler responds to Steven F. Hayward's "Modernizing Conservatism."

Post-war American conservatism developed out of three ideological commitments: limitations on centralized government power (particularly in domestic matters), faith in a traditional Judeo-Christian morality, and fervent anti-communism. These three commitments provided the three legs for the stool of the conservative movement, and some conservative thinkers, such as Frank Meyer, were able to fuse these strands into a coherent political philosophy, but tensions remained. Opposing the spread of international communism, for instance, necessarily entailed more centralized governmental authority than more libertarian-minded conservatives would usually tolerate.

The end of the Cold War was, in many respects, a triumph for American conservatism, but it may also have contributed to its undoing. The presence of an existential, external threat helped keep otherwise disparate groups together in a single coalition. The Frank Meyer fusion of libertarian political philosophy with a more culturally conservative disposition remains appealing to many, but no longer anchors the core of the movement. At the same time, domestic political victories -- the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 -- encouraged a complacency about the hard work entailed in governing the modern American state.

The movement, such as it was, broadened and grew in the 1980s and 1990s, but also became less discerning and unfocused, failing to recognize that not all threats to individual liberty or traditional morality are created equal. If earlier American conservatism was defined by a posture -- standing athwart history and yelling "stop" -- much American conservatism today consists of little more than a reactionary impulse to oppose any and all governmental action, even when such action is the prudent and indeed the "conservative" thing to do.

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Starve-the-Beast is Slow but Steady

William Voegeli responds to Steve Hayward's "Modernizing Conservatism."

I agree with much of what Steven Hayward writes about conservatism's challenges and insufficiencies. It's important to note, however, that very few conservatives would trade away these problems, serious as they are, in order to acquire the set of headaches that will afflict liberals in the foreseeable future.

The central difficulty is that the fiscal contradictions of liberalism have become asphyxiating. Liberals here, like social democrats in Europe, have shown themselves much better at the easy part of their mission, inducing people to demand government benefits, than at the hard part, persuading them to pay for government programs.

But the hard part, like most hard parts, turns out to be crucial. Liberals can summon neither the language nor the courage they need to convince their fellow citizens that the liberal enterprise will confer decently shared prosperity and enhanced economic security, thereby justifying significant and broadly applied tax increases as the fair and necessary means to provide those benefits. The liberal project is constrained by this sin of omission, and those constraints will grow more severe as the world's lenders become increasingly dubious and even terrified about covering the difference between the cost of the benefits welfare states have promised and the revenue from taxes they are prepared to impose.

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Conservatives Won’t Actually Cut Spending

Mark Schmitt responds to Steven F. Hayward's "Modernizing Conservatism."

Steve Hayward is correct, in "Modernizing Conservativism," that the tactic of reducing revenues to force some later reduction in the size of government -- recently referred to as "starve-the-beast" -- has failed. But it has not failed because of some exogenous force that pushes government spending up or because of the residual power of liberals, who at several points in the last three decades have been all but completely vanquished. It failed because conservatives have not actually done anything to cut government spending. Some may want to, especially those not running for office, and I'll give Hayward the benefit of the doubt that he is one of them. But a controlling faction of the conservative governing coalition wants to cut taxes, period, though not all taxes (hence the recent attack on the 47 percent of households who, thanks to decades of healthy bipartisan cooperation, pay no federal income taxes), just taxes on the wealthiest, and on investment income.

That same controlling faction is demonstrably less committed to cutting entitlement spending than liberals are. Consider this: the very highest point of conservative power since the 1920s was the 108th Congress from 2003-2005, when conservative Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress with sizable margins (even excluding the remnant of old-fashioned "moderate" Republicans like Rhode Island's Lincoln Chaffee), and were unafraid to use their institutional power to the fullest. What were the major domestic accomplishments of conservatism given free rein? Another huge tax cut, this one skewed even more toward the wealthy than the 2001 cut, and the largest and most irresponsibly designed expansion of the welfare state since the Community Action Program of the Great Society -- the Medicare Part D program. Forgive me if I have trouble taking seriously the idea that conservatives really, really believe in cutting spending, but something gets in their way. They themselves get in the way.

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The Myth of Serving the Check

Joseph Bast responds to Steven F. Hayward's "Modernizing Conservatism."

While I agree with Steve Hayward that means testing of entitlement programs is going to be an important bargaining position to bring liberals and conservatives together to cut spending, I found the rest of his article to be inaccurate, superficial, and just plain wrong. Hayward is pretty good when he writes about climate change and Ronald Reagan, but on the "state of the conservative movement," he's a bonehead.

Near the end of this essay, Hayward writes, "I have written this paper in the hopes that my fellow conservatives will recognize the need for a conservative reformation..." Nice that he didn't capitalize "conservative reformation," but actually, his purpose is much more modest than he claims. It is to argue for higher taxes and (something he dare not say in so many words) ending the tax deduction for mortgage interest, which he calls a "middle-class entitlement, which represent[s] the lion's share of federal spending." (Just connecting the dots here, since nothing else constitutes a "middle-class entitlement" worth going after.)

Everything else in this essay is just puffing and jazz. Like most neocons, Hayward is comfortable with the welfare state, income redistribution, and public investment in "public goods," and even advocates for more of all of these. United Republican opposition to higher taxes, something conservatives and libertarians have worked to achieve for 40 years, is the main obstacle to this agenda, and he knows it.

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Modernizing Conservatism: Hayward Responds to Voegeli, Adler, Schmitt, and Bast

The intellectual centers of political movements are healthiest when they debate amongst themselves as well as contesting their opponents. It is not always a smooth sight, as the wide-ranging reaction to my essay demonstrates.

The effort to modernize conservatism (and liberalism) should not be confused with an effort to bring an end to ideological or partisan conflict, but rather to reorient those conflicts so that the terms of the debate touch on the great issues of our day. The problem with our increasingly polarized politics is not polarization per se, but a polarization that is out of touch with the world that we actually live in. It caricatures the opposition in such fantastical ways that the possibility of actually having a reasonable and principled debate becomes unimaginable, or unable to move beyond the set-piece shadow-boxing of the cable TV shout shows.

With one notable exception, the respondents to my argument all, in one way or another, recognize the ways in which our contemporary political landscape has become so toxic as to demand some reconsideration from partisans on both sides of our presently unbridgeable political disputes. William Voegeli largely accepts my broader argument about the challenges facing conservatism, even as our political fortunes have risen, but suggests that he'd still rather have conservatism's problems than liberalism's. If I can restate Voegeli's main points crudely, he wonders why conservatives would want to rescue liberalism rather than letting liberals stew in their own (spending) juices, and that liberals will have to come around to living within the finite resources of the current revenue collar of the American political economy. In other words, if you starve it long enough, the beast will stop drooling and watch its diet.

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Debate Abstract

Last fall, Reagan scholar Steve Hayward declared the conservative movement's starve-the-beast anti-tax strategy a failure. Not only has it failed as a policy, resulting in massive indebtedness and no constraint on the growth of the welfare state, it has failed politically. Soon, he warned, Republicans would be forced to choose between "cuts to popular entitlement programs, deep reductions in national defense spending, and tax increases... It is hard to see how this ends well for conservatives."

The essay served as an electroshock to the libertarian amygdala. While Hayward won plaudits from center-rightists like David Brooks and David Frum, as well as from conservative apostate Andrew Sullivan, Joe Bast of the libertarian Heartland Institute sent Breakthrough Journal a letter, which we publish online today, calling Hayward a "bonehead," and speculating that Hayward is either trying to preserve a dying Reagan coalition (between neocons and libertarians), or just looking for "something to talk about with liberals at cocktail receptions."