President Bush’s former speechwriter, Michael Gerson, has a attack against small government conservatism in Newsweek. Gerson’s attack is rather blistering, and it shows that the conservatives who have accused the Bush Administration of abandoning bedrock conservative principles may have been all too right. For instance, Gerson argues:
As antigovernment conservatives seek to purify the Republican Party, it is reasonable to ask if the purest among them are conservatives at all. The combination of disdain for government, a reflexive preference for markets and an unbalanced emphasis on individual choice is usually called libertarianism. The old conservatives had some concerns about that creed, which Russell Kirk called “an ideology of universal selfishness.” Conservatives have generally taught that the health of society is determined by the health of institutions: families, neighborhoods, schools, congregations. Unfettered individualism can loosen those bonds, while government can act to strengthen them. By this standard, good public policies—from incentives to charitable giving, to imposing minimal standards on inner-city schools—are not apostasy; they are a thoroughly orthodox, conservative commitment to the common good.
Now, he’s right on the first part. Burkean conservatism (which is what American conservatism is all about) stresses the value of societal institutions as the “permanent things” which bind society together. A healthy society possesses healthy institutions. However, where Gerson gets it utterly wrong is by equating societal institutions with government when the two are not equivalent, and in fact are often hostile to each other.
There’s a term in Catholic social theory called subsidiarity, a concept which has influenced the formation of federalism in the United States. Pope Pius XI explained the concept as this:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy or absorb them.
Even taken out of its original Catholic context, the concept of subsidiarity is an important one in the history of the United States government. The Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution is an example of subsidiarity in government — powers which belong to the people may not be abrogated by the federal government. In the rush by the courts to dramatically expand the power of the federal government through the Commerce Clause, the Tenth Amendment was declared a mere “truism”, nothing more than a slight speed-bump that did nothing to effectively bar the federal government from taking more and more power. (US v. Darby, 31 U.S. 657 (1941).)
Where Gerson gets it wrong is by associating federal actions with the strengthening of societal institutions. Government doesn’t strengthens social institutions, it absorbs them. The use of federal power is not an act of subsidiarity, it is taking from the social fabric and putting the state in a position of greater and greater power. It is the most superficial compassion imaginable. Gerson continues:
Campaigning on the size of government in 2008, while opponents talk about health care, education and poverty, will seem, and be, procedural, small-minded, cold and uninspired. The moral stakes are even higher. What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing. What achievement would it contribute to racial healing and the unity of our country? No achievement at all. Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism—an idealism that strangles mercy.
Gerson might as well be advocating liberalism — because he essentially is. The reality of the situation is that government can’t cure crime — it can lock up criminals, but that’s treating a deeper problem symptomatically. Government can’t cure poverty — we’ve tried for the past four decades, and the result has been an entrenched culture of dependency that stifles the individual initiative that lifts people out of poverty. It wasn’t until we dramatically rolled back the welfare state that real results were achieved. Government will never promote racial healing, instead setbacks and quotas serve to further divide this nation along racial lines by promoting the color of one’s skin over the content of one’s character.
What Gerson promotes is the same fallacy that liberalism pushes — that it’s the state that is the solution to our problems. The concept of subsidiarity reminds us of the most important of our conservative principles: that there is no such thing as compassion by proxy. The more the state abrogates the responsibilities of the individual, whether it is our mandate of compassion towards our fellow man, or whether it be the education of our children, the more our society loses the “permanent things” that hold us together. The state can promote healthy institutions not be interjecting itself, but by staying well out of the way.
Take Gerson’s example of the inner city. What does “antigovernment” conservative have to offer the people stuck in America’s ghettos? Far more than Gerson thinks. For one, conservatives believe strongly in limiting government and expanding individual choice by providing for school vouchers that allow someone stuck in a failing inner-city school to go to a private school where they have a chance to succeed. The failure of the educational bureaucracy and the enforced segregation of the public school system make school choice the single most important civil rights issue of our age — and government is the problem, not the solution.
The power of the state is in tension with the institutions of society. The bedrock principle of conservatism is not the sort of big government conservatism that Gerson would advocate — which ends up being a liberal philosophy with a Republican spin. It is a principle that keeps in mind the concept of subsidiarity — that fosters institutions as close to the people as possible, and never allows the state to swallow that which properly belongs to the people. Compassion is an individual trait, it is possessed by people working in soup kitchens, not D.C. apparatchiks deciding how much money goes where. The more the Republican Party forgets its values, the farther and farther we get from our principles and the more likely we are to lose. Gerson has all but abandoned our core principles in favor of a kind of squishy liberalism with a façade of conservative values. If all we will be is a pale imitation of the left, then not only we lose politically, but we will have abandoned the bedrock principles which have animated the conservative movement.