If we step back from the individual budget battles taking place in Washington and many of our states, one cannot help but sense that the task for conservatives isn’t simply to engage in a battle about the size of the deficit, unfunded liabilities, and federal debt held by the public. These things matter, of course. The case against profligacy and the dangers of insolvency is obviously important. And more than any time in recent history, these issues are resonating with the public.
But this is a moment in which, as David Brooks has said, the task before us is to (carefully) rewrite the social contract and provide a new way to think about how the government pays for social insurance. If conservatives hope to succeed, then, they will need to make their case not only on economic grounds but also in terms of human character. A friend of mine recently told me that all great public-policy inflection points have depended on making what are essentially moral arguments.
With that in mind, conservatives and GOP lawmakers might consider reading a 1992 book by the late philosopher Shirley Robin Letwin, The Anatomy of Thatcherism. Professor Letwin argued that Thatcherism promoted a moral agenda rather than an economic doctrine or a political theory in order to achieve a fundamental realignment in British politics. She used the term “vigorous virtues” to describe what Thatcherites aimed to cultivate in individual Britons and in the country as a whole. (The kind of citizens Thatcherites preferred were “upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent-minded, loyal to friends, and robust against enemies.”) For understanding Thatcherism, Letwin wrote, “the important point is that a view about character, about the characters of individuals, is at the heart of it.” It was not a theoretical construction so much as an effort to offer a concrete vision of how Britain should be — and at the core of it was a moral vision.
“In place of a Conservative Party conceived as a party of consolidation, consensus and accumulation, a party which genuinely entertains a ‘ragbag of ideas’, Thatcherism is distinguished, as even its opponents have admitted, by direction, movement, and purpose,” according to Letwin.
How best to apply the insights of Letwin and Margaret Thatcher herself to this country and this moment may not be self-evident. But what is clear, I think, is that the task of modern American conservatism is to sketch out a vision of the kind of citizens we hope to produce: citizens who are self-sufficient, sovereign, discerning, and responsible. We need to promote policies that encourage success, enterprise, and human excellence. This is another way of saying that what conservatives should be championing is self-government.
If done in the right way — in a manner that is uplifting rather than preachy, affirming rather than scolding — it can help rally an anxious country to an admirable cause.