As the GOP field of candidates gets larger and more ideologically diverse, conservatives work toward a defining message about their brand of conservatism.  The latest incarnation is an apparent rebranding of the “compassionate conservatism” most closely associated with President George W. Bush.

Not only is the term itself objectionable in its implication that conservatism is not compassionate, but it is equally objectionable in practice.  From compassionate conservatism we notably got No Child Left Behind and (then and still unfunded) Medicare Part D.  Expanding government and increasing spending to provide, expand, and otherwise “reform” an ever-growing number of federal programs seems to undermine fundamental principles of conservatism.

Rather than working to significantly shrink or even eradicate giant social welfare programs, “compassionate” conservatism worked to “reform” them at huge cost to the American tax payer. And therein lies the problem for many conservatives who might agree that a safety net is viable, even necessary, but who draw the line at a welfare state that goes well beyond being a temporary safety net for those in need to a generational morass from which few ever escape.

Compassionate conservatism was, in essence, an attempt to apply conservative principles to social engineering goals, a means of reforming the welfare state and “helping the poor” via central planning.  The central planning itself, however, was supposed to be rooted in fiscally conservative principles, but the underlying precept was that big government is the answer . . . no matter the question.

Many conservatives (such as myself) find this marriage of big government social engineering and conservatism more than a little perplexing in its inherent contradiction.  As noted in The Washington Post:

The essential problem was that compassionate conservatism was an unstable amalgam of two very different ideas, one good and one very bad. The good idea, encouraging self-help and grass-roots entrepreneurship, was largely abandoned in favor of the bad idea, namely the embrace of central planning to raise K-12 test scores and homeownership rates, as though artificially pumping up mortgage finance bore any resemblance to encouraging real prosperity. Bailouts of Detroit and Wall Street would follow the same logic.

We don’t hear the term “compassionate conservative” very often these days and with good reason.  That doesn’t mean, however, that its principles have been abandoned by its proponents.  Enter Reform Conservatism:

There is a sense in which reform conservatism can be defined as an update and overhaul of American institutions — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare programs, job training — that were created in the 1930s and the 1960s and are now creaky and fiscally unsustainable. This constitutes an ambitious agenda, involving the use of government to empower individuals with information, resources and choices — a Margaret Thatcher-like use of power to break up old power arrangements.

These efforts stand in contrast to a simplistic formulation of conservative “constitutionalism,” which doesn’t see the work of government reform as necessary because it does not cede the legitimacy of the New Deal and Great Society. In a certain way, reform conservatism is more ambitious than this type of constitutionalism because it actually offers a governing agenda that would transform the modern state, not just applause lines at a CPAC convention.

But after prolonged exposure to reform conservatives, it is clear that their main policy insight runs deeper. One reason that American institutions are badly in need of modernization is to respond to new economic realities. Large, irreversible economic trends — particularly globalization and the technological revolution — have made it difficult for many Americans to find dignified work, sufficient to supporting a family, particularly when they have limited skills and education. Modern capitalism has left some communities in serious need of transitional help — and the transition may last a long time. Some type of redistribution is necessary. But it should be, in the reform conservative view, redistribution that favors work, family and the accumulation of useful skills. [emphasis added]

Reformocons don’t want to diminish the role of the federal government, they want to expand and refine—even redefine—it, and they seem to imagine that foregrounding some conservative principles such as work and family is the same thing as enacting conservative policy, i.e. policy based in small government, personal responsibility, and equal opportunity rather than outcome.  As Robert Tracinski argues:

The key premise of this non-reforming “reform conservatism” is the idea that it’s impossible to really touch the welfare state. We might be able to alter its incentives and improve its clanking machinery, but only if we loudly assure everyone that we love it and want to keep it forever.

And there’s the problem. Not only is this defeatist at its core, abandoning the cause of small government at the outset, but it fails to address the most important problem facing the country.

“Reform conservatism” is an answer to the question: how can we promote the goal of freedom and small government—without posing any outright challenge to the welfare state? The answer: you can’t. All you can do is tinker around the edges of Leviathan. And ultimately, it won’t make much difference, because it will all be overwelmed [sic] in the coming disaster.

Reformocons don’t themselves use the terms “central planning,” “welfare state,” or “redistribution” for obvious reasons, but they are clear that these are the bases of their conservative progressive reforms.  Following is a panel discussion that is well worth taking the time to watch:

Can conservatism embrace central planning and the welfare state?  Is redistribution really conservative?  These are questions to ponder as we assess the 2016 GOP primary field and, indeed, the future of conservatism in America.



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