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A Conservative Vision of Government

Michael Gerson and I have written an essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government,” published in the newest issue of the indispensable quarterly National Affairs. Our aim is to make a persuasive case for why conservatives should speak about not only the size but also the purposes of government–and why a modern, reform agenda is key to the future of the GOP and conservatism. 

We explain in some detail our deep disagreements with the Obama agenda and why limited government advances individual liberty and human flourishing. But we deal with a good deal more than that.

The essay responds to what we consider to be a rhetorical indiscipline among some on the right that is often directed against government. Since those attacks are often justified by references to the Constitution and the American founding, we explore the views of the Federalist founders and Lincoln, who in fact were not fiercely and ideologically anti-government.

We point out that the Federalist founders, unlike some anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution, did not view government as an evil, or even as a necessary evil. In their view, government, properly understood and framed, was essential to promoting what they referred to as the “public good.” The most important framers and explicators of the Constitution–Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, and others–believed the national government had to have the ability to adapt as necessary to meet citizens’ needs as those needs were expressed through representative government. (“In framing a system which we wish to last for ages,” Madison told the Constitutional Convention, “we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.”) They would have little toleration, we write,

for politicians who are committed to abstract theories even when they are at odds with the given world and the welfare of the polity — who fail to differentiate between conserving the system by adapting it to changing circumstances and undermining the system by breaking with its fundamental aims and outlook.

We devote a section of the essay to law and character, arguing that by definition laws shape habits, values, and sensibilities–not every law, not all the time, but enough to play a decisive role in the formation of our national character and the individual characters of our citizens.

The last section of our piece argues that the real problem in much of American government is not simply that it is too big but rather that it is antiquated, ineffective, and ill-equipped to handle the most basic functions appropriate for a great and modern country. Conservatives, we say, “should offer a menu of structural reforms that do not simply attack government but transform it on conservative terms.” 

The essay concludes this way:

Conservatives are more likely to be trusted to run the affairs of the nation if they show the public that they grasp the purposes of government, that they fully appreciate it is in desperate need of renovation, and that they know what needs to be done. The American people are deeply practical; they are interested in what works. And they want their government to work. Conservatives know how institutions can and should work in our free society, and they can apply that knowledge to government. 

All this leads us to a final reason why conservatives should be engaged in the reform of government. The reputation of government is an important national asset — and an irreplaceable source of national pride. Government overreach by the left has degraded that asset. Today’s hemorrhaging of trust in public institutions, if left to run its course, will only further degrade it. Skepticism toward government is one thing; outright hostility is injurious to the health of American democracy itself. How can citizens be expected to love their country if they are encouraged to hold its government in utter contempt?

Thinking of government as a precious national institution in need of care and reform does not come naturally to many modern-day conservatives. Given the damage that our government is doing to our society, it is easy to understand their anger and frustration. But that is precisely why, especially now, conservatives must make the case that they will give Americans a government, and therefore a country, they can once again be proud of. 

Our essay, then, is an attempt to lay out a vision of conservatism that is philosophically sound and politically popular. But judge for yourself.


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