The Conscious Conservative


Steven Hayward

January 2012 | Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger,

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."

But already Hayward's warning has proven prescient. The Congressional Supercommittee failed to achieve agreement on how to cut the federal deficit, triggering deep cuts in defense spending while leaving middle class entitlements -- the longstanding object of libertarian ire -- largely untouched. And then, a few days before Christmas, House Republicans were routed in their efforts to forestall an extension of the payroll tax cut. Obama's poll numbers quickly rose against House Libertarians.

In a special Breakthrough Forum on the future of conservatism, we are today publishing three responses to Hayward from the Right -- Bast, Jonathan Adler of Case Western University and William Voegeli of the Claremont Review of Books -- and one from the Left, Mark Schmitt of the Roosevelt Institute. "Tax cuts are all well and good, but they are not the answer to every problem," writes Adler. "Today's economic, social and environmental problems are very real, as are the threats to freedom and traditional institutions."

Voegeli agrees with Hayward that conservatives must acknowledge that the welfare state is here to stay, but hastens to add that he wouldn't trade conservatism's problems for liberalism's, which has staked its fortunes to the preservation of entitlements that are unsustainable given our sluggish economy and aging population. Continuing to pander to an electorate that rejects both cuts to middle class entitlements and increases to middle class tax rates is a strategy that liberals will only be able to sustain for so long before the bill comes due, with potentially devastating consequences for the American welfare state.

Schmitt says the real reason conservatives haven't shrunk government is that they don't really want to. Conservative opposition to spending and expanded government has mostly been used as a cudgel with which to bludgeon liberals, particularly when conservatives are in power. Conservatives have shown themselves to be just as willing as their liberal brethren to use the power of the federal purse to shower spending upon their favored constituents. "The one big thing that conservatism has to rethink is not its strategy on spending and taxes," Schmitt argues, "but its culture-war model of politics, with its semi-secessionist attitude toward democratic negotiation."

As if to make Schmitt's point, Bast accuses Hayward of disloyalty. The fault for ever-expanding government and indebtedness lies not with heart and soul of the movement, but rather the betrayals of the Republican establishment, which never took the party's libertarian commitments seriously.

While Bast is hardly alone in imagining that he is the conscience of conservatives, the varied responses to Hayward's essay prove that, even during a time of extreme polarization, there are still conscious conservatives.

"There were a few liberals in the 1960s and 1970s who recognized the errors of conformity," Hayward writes, "and argued that the Left and the country could learn some useful things from the Right. But in general they were ignored. Now the Right is in danger of repeating the liberals' error, for similar reasons."

The Essay: "Modernizing Conservatism" by Steven F. Hayward

The Responses:

Jonathan H. Adler: "Hayward Diagnoses Conservatism's Ills"

William Voegeli: "Starve-the-Beast is Slow but Steady"

Mark Schmitt: "Conservatives Won't Actually Cut Spending"

Joseph Bast: "The Myth of Serving the Check"

Steven F. Hayward: "Modernizing Conservatism: Hayward Responds to Voegeli, Adler, Schmitt, and Bast"