I wholeheartedly agree with Peter Wehner’s point from last week about the need to make the moral case for conservative economics. The case is strong, and it has not been made well or often in general public debate in the last 20 years. The knowledge that there is such a case seems at times like the relic of an earlier era: it harks back to the argument made from the 1940s to the 1970s by a self-designated American rearguard against communism and “creeping socialism.” There was an aspect of national-security immediacy to the question then. In the wake of the Reagan years, however, when a consensus on conservative economics appeared to be in the ascendant and the Soviet Union had been put on an unsustainable defensive, the focus of debate shifted to deviations from conservative economics – and its importance to addressing crises and social problems. The basic outlines of the timeless moral case for conservative economics have largely disappeared from our set of popular understandings.
But this case cannot stand alone. Economic conservatism is intrinsically linked to political liberty, a liberty meaning not just the right to speak freely on political matters and to vote, but the right to set limits on the central government’s power and regulatory reach. This debate we have had, if possible, even less over the past two decades than the debate on the moral foundations of conservative economics. This very question is what motivated the American colonists to declare independence from the British king, but our public discourse today has fallen into a set of unexamined bromides on topics like the meaning of political liberty and the proper relation of man and the state.
In this vein, I took particular notice of the following passage from Peter Wehner’s post today on Sarah Palin mocking the First Lady’s anti-obesity campaign.
… the problem of childhood obesity is real. And there are entirely reasonable steps that can be taken to address it, including (to name just one) banning vending machines from schools. Does that constitute the “nanny state run amok”?
I understand the question is meant to be rhetorical. But there is actually a very large segment of the American population that would answer, “Of course.” The central government’s interesting itself in our obesity because that government has made the cost of our health care “its” problem – and proposing therefore to ban vending machines from schools putatively governed by local school boards and the states – can legitimately be considered at odds with the American idea of government as limited, constitutional, and federal. This arguably puts the proposition at odds, by extension, with the American idea of the citizen, the state, and natural rights.
One key reason for the Tea Party movement is that there has been no real public debate on this most fundamental of topics for at least 30 years. I believe we do not have a common understanding today of where federal intervention in school vending machines stands in relation to political liberty. It’s true Sarah Palin often expresses the more libertarian side of this question with a populist inelegance that may be unhelpful, but that doesn’t mean that the debate is over regarding how much we should let government manage our life choices. That debate must form part of the discussion on conservative economics and morality as we advance toward 2012.
All that said, I concur with Peter’s gentle and well-considered point on mocking Michelle Obama. That’s not the way to introduce this topic. Contrarianism only goes so far: it is generosity of spirit, good humor, and courtesy that will win the day for the aspiring political leader who reclaims these fundamental issues for conservatives.