Conservatism and Solutions

Andrew's thoughts on the George Packer "Death of Conservatism" essay are well worth your time, but obviously I'm more sympathetic toward Yuval Levin's rejoinder. When it comes to his differences with the various reform-minded conservatives mentioned in Packer's piece - myself included - I feel like Andrew is mistaking a policy disagreement for a major philosophical difference. He writes, for instance:

[Their] argument is framed in such a way as to violate conservatism's core insight ... Conservatism is not, to my mind, about solving problems, which is why it 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.

I agree - an essential modesty about the scope of government action and its ability to "solve" the great problems of the day is crucial to conservatism. (Which is why I wear as a badge of honor the remarkably similar liberal rejoinders to Grand New Party offered by Packer and E.J. Dionne - Packer's complaint that Reihan and I are "unprepared to accept as large a role for government as required by the deep structural problems they identify," and Dionne's lament that we're unwilling to accept "the level of intervention in the economy that the current inequities may require.") But this first principle only gets us so far, as Andrew's next paragraph suggests:

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.

I think this is a good example of why arguments about what "true conservatives" will do often don't tell us very much. Sure, a conservative might support a carbon tax for the reasons Andrew lays out - but then again, a conservative might instead agree with Jim Manzi that any carbon tax will perforce be both onerous and overly-ambitious. Moreoever, a conservative might also disagree with premise that climate change is the most pressing "emergent question" that our government ought to "ameliorate" and favor reform on other fronts instead.

I don't deny that on questions having to do with the scope of government action Andrew may be marginally to my right. (Though not far enough to prevent him from supporting Barack Obama.) But overall, I think our disagreements have more to do with differing assessments of the big problems the U.S. is facing - he's primarily worried about global warming and the looming entitlement crunch, so far as I can tell, and I'm more concerned about issues related to family structure, mobility and inequality - than with deep-seated ideological differences that make him a "true conservative" and me something else. Not that Andrew and I don't have deep-seated ideological differences, mind you - I just don't think the question of whether government should try to "solve" every problem or merely "ameliorate" the most pressing ones is one of them.