Conservatives And The Wrong Problems

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Ezra Klein:

The conservative movement has plenty of ideas for a certain universe of problems: Overly high taxes, say, or the need to respond to bluntly assert American power in response to foreign aggression. They have solutions for combating a culture that's spun out of control and rebalancing a welfare state that's too generous to minorities. They have solutions for restoring order when the law no longer contains the crime.

What they're lacking, right now, are the appropriate problems. Because they don't have solutions for 47 million Americans without health insurance. They don't have solutions for a failing invasion that's exposed American power as significantly more constrained that the world imagined it to be. They don't have solutions for high gas prices, or a credit and mortgage crisis, or a dawning recognition that we're ruining the only planet we have.

I think this gets things the wrong way round. In fact, the argumnent is framed in such a way as to violate conservatism's core insight - and that was also the case with Packer's article (and a lot of what my friends, David Brooks, Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat said in it). Conservatism is not, to my mind, about solving problems, which is why it Burke remains a very problematic governing philosophy for modern Americans.  It is about a modesty toward what problems government can ever solve. Its responses to emergent questions will not be an attempt to "solve" them, but to ameliorate them with a narrow set of tools. And the narrower the better.

To give one example: the gas and climate question. Conservatives will not deny the problem but nor will they impose an onerous or overly-ambitious solution. If the evidence emerges that our carbon dependence is both damaging our environment and empowering our enemies, then change is necessary. But an elaborate cap-and-trade government monitored and imposed scheme is not appealing; or a government-engineered switch to biofuels (unintended consequences). A clear, solid carbon tax that simply encourages individuals and companies to innovate and switch to renewable energy would be a conservative solution. Simple, transparent, and targeted correctly with a minimal growth in government power. If fiscal circumstances permit, you can balance such a tax hike by lowering income tax or providing safety-net subsidies to those most in need as a result. And a truly conservative president would not be afraid to say, in his or her best eat-your-vegetables tone, that this is the only workable solution and that the alternative is worse.

For conservatism to copy liberalism by always seeking "solutions" to problems and convincing "the right coalitions" of people to look to government for the satisfaction of their needs would be a mistake in my view. It may not be a mistake for Republicanism, an amorphous political entity that does what it wants in the pursuit of power. Maybe aiming for a "Sams Club" coalition or a Jewish-evangelical alliance or "durable majority" on Rove's lines makes sense for a political party or movement trying out new policies for new clients. But conservatism as a pragmatic, minimalist sensibility toward governance, conservatism as a reflexive preference for freedom, conservatism as a school of thought defined by the view that solutions are often worse than the problems: not so much.

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