How does this pertain to Bush's domestic agenda? His inaugural address related that agenda to an ``edifice of character.'' He said ``self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self,'' and that ``edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards'' and sustained by ``the varied faiths of our people.''
But the edifice is not ``built'' only in families; it is influenced by many facets of civil society, which in turn is shaped by government's many activities. Bush, in an address central to America's political liturgy, has now spoken of character as something that is, to a very limited but very important extent, constructed. Public policy participates in the building of it. This is a doctrine of architectonic government -- government concerned with shaping the structure of the citizenry's soul.
Twenty-two years ago there was a book, written by this columnist and read by dozens, titled ``Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does.'' It was a manifesto, of sorts, for ``big government conservatism.'' It argued that modern government, with its myriad prescriptions, proscriptions and incentives, cannot help but endorse and, to some extent, enforce certain values. So it should be thoughtful and articulate about it.
It cannot be said of Bush, as was famously said of Martin Van Buren, that he rows toward his goal ``with muffled oars.'' Bush has said ``I don't do nuance,'' and his ``ownership society'' agenda -- from Social Security personal accounts to health savings accounts to tax cuts -- is explicitly explained as soulcraft. Its purpose is to combat the learned incompetence of persons who become comfortable with excessive dependence on and supervision by government. His agenda's aim is to continue, in the language of his inaugural address, ``preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society.''
That is the crux of modern conservatism -- government taking strong measures to foster in the citizenry the attitudes and aptitudes necessary for increased individual independence. That is what the Homestead Act did, out in what no longer is the Great American Desert.