Conservatism, Debated

My colleague and friend Ross Douthat makes several claims in recent posts about the current debate within conservatism that are worth addressing. In particular there is this claim:

Andrew also wants to posture as the last rock-ribbed small-government conservative, standing his ground against the imaginary "Christianist-dominated welfare state" that he's dreamed up.

Just for the record: I did not "dream up" the biggest rate of increase in discretionary non-defense government spending in generations. I did not dream up the bankrupting Medicare prescription drug benefit. I did not dream up the festival of pork that this president has signed into law. I did not dream up the fact that in Bush's first five years, federal spending on housing and commerce jumped 86 percent,   that spending on community and regional development leaped 71 percent, or that Medicaid's costs went up by 46 percent. I did not hallucinate the Federal Marriage Amendment. I did not dream up federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case. I did not dream up big increases in farm subsidies or an explosion of pork-barrel spending. I did not dream up the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court on the basis of her religious faith. I did not dream up Karl Rove's meticulous effort to mesh local churches with local Republican organization. I did not dream up all the many aspects of the Bush administration that can fairly be described as Christianist welfarism. The term "compassionate conservatism" was not my invention. In his attempt to dismiss the conservative critique of Bush that is fast becoming the consensus, Ross says that Bush actually favored means-testing social security. Or did I misread that?

I don't know anyone who believes that the Bush administration has been an exemplar of small government conservatism. Does Ross? Those of us who complained about this early on have been vindicated, I'm afraid. I can see the pointlessness of fighting these battles all over again; but I don't think glossing over this dreadful record or declaring, as David Brooks did, the necessity of "no U-turns" is a good idea. In fact, I think a few U-turns are exactly what we need. I notice that Mitt Romney, for example, has staked out much more fiscally conservative ground than Bush. I expect much the same from McCain. If they follow through on fiscal responsibility, it will be an almighty U-turn.

As for the future, I don't think my vision is anything Christianist or welfarist. I'd like to see means-testing of social security and Medicare, abolition of all tax shelters except charity, a flat tax, an end to corporate welfare and agricultural subsidies, and a government largely indifferent to the varying moral choices adults make in the way they live their lives. Yes, I favor a carbon tax, but only because it would dramatically help foster more environmentally friendly energy sources and eventually make us less entangled with the murderous Middle East (and I'd balance it with tax cuts elsewhere). Yes, I'm fine with universal health insurance - but mainly because we currently effectively have it anyway, in the most inefficient manner possible, and only if the health system remains in private hands. I don't see these positions as a huge concession to Bush's shift to big-government conservatism. I see them as pragmatic responses to emerging problems: an inefficient healthcare insurance system and climate change. Yes, I do favor more spending on defense and intelligence, precisely because we are at war. Small government conservatives understand that wartime requires more spending and bigger government on the defense and intelligence fronts. But responsible small government conservatives believe that requires sacrifice at home, especially on domestic spending. And that's where we differ with Bush-Cheney.

Beneath all this, there is a fair and real debate about whether one favors a conservatism geared toward security or a conservatism geared toward freedom. I'm for freedom, even at the expense of security, even now. Others are free to disagree. In a world hurtling toward global religious war, and with rapid economic globalization, I can see why security has more of a claim than in the recent past. But massive spending and borrowing, combined with an indefinite abrogation of habeas corpus and legalization of torture is not what I - or any sane conservative - should want to continue. Maybe the debate will get more fruitful if we concentrate on actual policy debates from now on. But the deeper philosophical debate about conservatism is important. You can't just wish the last six years away. Not yet anyway.