All You Need Is Love: How Community Can Save Conservatism

The right's rhetoric is all about individual liberty, but love of fellow humans is essential to a functioning society -- or policy.
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In May, Rep. Paul Ryan gave a speech at an American Enterprise Institute dinner, where I work, titled "Conservatism and Community." Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, spoke of the inherent human need for community. "We want everyone to have a chance in life -- a chance to be happy," he argued. "And we're happiest when we're together. We want to be together. It's in our nature. We feel it in our bones." People "hunger for a community -- where they realize their potential."

The vision Ryan offered is appealing, and conservatives should listen to it.

Conservatism, properly understood, has long championed the essential role played by the mediating institutions of civil society -- Edmund Burke's "little platoons" -- the churches, the schools, the men's and women's clubs, soup kitchens, scout troops, youth sports leagues, and neighborhood associations. It is here that we learn how to interact with each other. It is here that a healthy dependence of mutual obligation is formed. It is here -- enmeshed in a layered, vibrant web of social interactions and commitments -- that manners are learned, habits of virtue are cultivated, tradition is discovered and appreciated, and young people are taught who they are and how to live.

Many on the right correctly emphasize individual liberty, but they do not emphasize what conservatism knows to be true: It is in community that people learn how to be free.

Ryan argued that "the federal government has a role to play" with respect to community, but that "it's a supporting role, not the leading one." This is generally true. Government should distance itself enough from the individual that civil society -- which exists in the space between government and citizen -- can flourish. Speaking generally, government should help support these institutions, but it should not do their work for them.

But this is not to say that a communitarian ethic should be absent from politics and public policy -- quite the opposite. Proceeding with a spirit of community would help conservatives formulate and support better policies. Let's discuss a few.

The most obvious and immediate need for a spirit of community in the public-policy space is in the labor market. We still have two million fewer jobs than when the official "recovery" from the Great Recession began. More than four million of our fellow citizens have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer.

Although our labor-market crisis is often discussed in economic terms (if at all), it truly represents a human tragedy. It constitutes millions and millions of workers who are unable to flourish, to earn their own success, to realize their full potential.

A public policy animated by a spirit of community would assign top priority to helping put Americans back to work by reforming the unemployment-insurance system to include relocation vouchers for unemployed workers who need to move in order to find a job and lump-sum bonuses for finding jobs, further delaying Obamacare's employer mandate beyond 2015 if the labor market continues to recover at a slow pace, encouraging high-skill immigrants to come to America and create jobs, encouraging domestic energy production, and getting the government off the backs of aspiring entrepreneurs by reducing occupational licensing requirements and regulatory burdens.

The disappearance of traditional middle-class jobs -- a consequence of technological advancements in automating processes, to a large degree, and of outsourcing -- represents the biggest challenge to American workers since the mass of workers left the farm for the factory. Any solution will involve better education for all Americans, so conservatism motivated by a spirit of community would put education reform at the top of its agenda. That would include embracing school choice, making it easier for local communities to start charter schools, tailoring curriculum to meet the needs of an automated economy, holding schools and teachers to performance metrics, weakening the power of teachers' unions, and pushing for a longer school year -- 180 days is too short a school year for a 21st-century education.

The right should not be afraid to attack corporate cronyism. Capitalism is a profit and loss system -- we should not continue to privatize the gains and socialize the losses of systemically or politically or symbolically important corporations. Those concerned about society and community should immediately see this and use government power to ensure society isn't on the hook for bailing out corporations.

Burke observed that society properly understood is a covenant between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. But the current tax code is biased against saving and toward consumption, because dollars saved are taxed more than once, whereas dollars spent on consumption are only taxed once.

I am free to earn money today, pay taxes, take my after-tax income to Vegas, and spend all of it on gambling, liquor, and women. I am also free to earn money today, pay taxes, save my after-tax income, and spend it in the future. The former increases my utility today; the latter helps our children and grandchildren enjoy a higher standard of living and build a more dynamic, growing economy tomorrow. Savings is just another word for investments, and we know investment is crucial to future economic growth. We owe it to the next generation to leave them a large capital stock so that they too can enjoy robust growth and higher wages. The tax code should encourage that.

America's prisons are expensive, prisoners are often less capable of living in society after being incarcerated than before, and prison rape is a pressing human-rights issue. America's prisons are a serious social problem, and conservatism animated by a spirit of community would set about to fixing them. Richard Viguerie recently argued persuasively in the New York Times that prison reform lies "at the core of conservative philosophy." Conservatives should recognize this and champion reform.

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Michael R. Strain is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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