The Coming Ideological Battle for the Soul of Conservatism

David Strom
Posted: Dec 18, 2006 5:31 PM
The Coming Ideological Battle for the Soul of Conservatism

It was bound to come, sooner rather than later.

November’s defeats at the polls for Republicans could not but spark a war between advocates of differing visions of conservatism and the best avenue for a rebirth of the Republican Party.

Michael Gerson, a former advisor to and speechwriter for President Bush, the "big government" or "compassionate" conservative, has helped to define one of the opposing sides in the coming battle.

Writing in the December 25 issue of Newsweek (the mainstream media always sees farther than the rest of us, apparently), Gerson argues that the intellectual "small government"/"think tank" wing of the conservative movement is a version of fundamentalism. By this, I take it, he means that we "movement" conservatives are not so much reality-based as ideological, tending to ignore the facts in favor of a dangerously simplified version of reality. Our preference for markets, for instance, is "reflexive" and not thoughtful.

Gerson, one of the architects of big government compassionate conservatism, is clearly worried that the recent elections will be seen (rightly) as a decisive rejection not just Bush’s inarticulate and often difficult to divine war policies, but also his rather unconservative big spending/big government Republicanism.

Gerson is right to be worried, but not because he is right that limited government conservatives are simply longing for a world that never has been or never could or should be. Gerson should be worried precisely because he is one of the primary advocates for taking the Republican Party down a political and ideological Cul-de-Sac.

So where does Gerson go wrong? Obviously you should read his article yourself, and it can be found at MSNBC, but I can summarize the problem with his analysis in one sentence: Gerson characterizes limited government conservatism as "antigovernment conservatism." This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it isn't.

Small government or limited government conservatives are not antigovernment. And failing to see that fact is at the root of both the liberal illusions about conservatives, and the big government “conservatives’” misunderstandings about the real roots of the conservative movement.

The essential foundation upon which limited government conservatism is built is the recognition that government, while a very powerful tool to achieve goals, is both a pretty blunt instrument and is always in tension with other important goods, such as the preservation and expansion of human liberty, and the promotion of strong and vibrant civil society.

Thus a limited government conservative might appear very Hamiltonian—in favor of very vigorous governmental action in certain realms, including police powers and national defense, while equally skeptical of the use of government power in other areas, such as values education and welfare expenditures.

There is nothing contradictory about these impulses, and in fact once you see the common thread you can understand easily why limited government conservatives are simultaneously passionate about limiting government and strengthening it within those limited areas, especially the prototypical governmental power, defense.

By mistaking limited government aspirations with being antigovernment, Gerson and his ilk have created a straw man to endlessly beat up. They fail to distinguish between a limited but effective role for government investment in infrastructure and the power to earmark funds for bridges to nowhere. By seeing an objection to using government power to accomplish simply political goals (pork-barrel spending) or even potentially nice goals that are not the proper role of government (spending on the arts or sports) as simply being “antigovernment, Gerson fails to see that his version of conservatism has fallen into a trap.

Once you concede that the limits on government powers and spending only exist as a symptom of the mood of the day—and that seems to be Gerson’s suggestion—then there are no limits at all. You are in a bidding war, with liberty at risk and the economy as a plaything of the government and the elites who typically run it.

It is only by strongly, even strictly defining the limits of government that you open up any breathing room for the "small platoons of society" (as Burke put it), or the informal organizations of which Tocqueville spoke so highly. Limiting government is the only defense we have against ever encroaching government, of the supplanting of the private with the public, the general and mediocre over the individual and excellent.

The battle between the compassionate conservatives and the Reagan conservatives is met. On the one side, you have the essentially political argument that Americans are used to big government, and even when they claim not to like it, they still expect it. On the other you have those of us who argue that there can be no real conservatism that accepts big and hence essentially unlimited government.

I know what side I am on, and look forward to the fight.