Against the backdrop of the current budgetary battle and the ensuing shutdown of the federal government, there has been much chortling and wry humor bandied about on Twitter and in the conservative blogosphere about “essential” vs. “non-essential” government employees. Many a pundit ask the question, “Well, if these employees are ‘non-essential,’ why should we have them at all? All these fat cat DC bureaucrats ought to be fired for good!”
Such rhetoric is always present on our side of the aisle in one form or another and it is often music to the conservative and libertarian ear. Rarely does it translate into actual policy proposals or campaign platforms. Instead, it is more the stuff of barroom dickering.
However, over the past several days it has reached such a fever pitch that this writer thinks it’s appropriate to examine it more seriously — and use it to reinforce one of the key tenets of conservatism that may have become lost in recent years.
The thing that sets conservatism apart from other political ideologies is its explicit rejection of any kind of revolutionary drive or zeal. In his seminal work The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk listed this among his six canons of conservative thought:
(6) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.
The wisdom of this philosophy is all too evident to those of us who have been observing the unfolding debacle of the Affordable Care Act. In their zeal to bring needed reform to the American healthcare system, our president and his congressional allies acted in extreme haste to implement a wide-reaching piece of legislation that they did not even bother to read before voting upon it. Among Obamacare’s chief sins is the imprudence with which it was drafted and foisted upon the nation, when time and cool-headed deliberation involving input from all sides might have seen some reform that actually did some good — or at very least does not stand posed to wreck our economy and stop Catholic nuns from caring for the elderly and the dying.
Tragically, the toxin of revolutionary rhetoric is not absent from the bloodstream of the conservative movement.
The challenge of remaining committed to the sanctity of process, of gradual reform of our bloated welfare state, and of overbearing government, is that it is rather… boring. It is a tempering quality, rather than a firing one. A Republican presidential contender is not going to elicit cheers at CPAC by promising to set his administration on a path of gradually rolling back liberalism over the course of the next half century. Sean Hannity and Mark Levin are not going to drive ratings and sell books by listing on air the useful things that our federal government does that might, if properly examined, be done better at the state or local level.
Voices like these are typically the loudest in the room, because they excite the senses and get the blood rushing. This does not mean that what they are preaching is healthy for the conservative movement.
So while we ride out this government shutdown and wait for the Mighty Lords of the Dizzy City to decide to do the job for which we are paying them, feel free to have a laugh or two at how the country continues to roll along without noticeable disruption. But do not take these jokes to heart and fall into the trap of thinking that gutting the federal bureaucracy overnight might be a worthwhile goal after all.
Listening to right-wing talk radio or following John Galt groupies on Twitter, one might think that the totality of federal discretionary spending is consumed by funding cowboy poetry festivals or sending federal thugocrats to shut-down Uncle Billy’s Antique Gun-Smithing Store and Medical Marijuana Dispensary (Drive-Thru at Rear).
Believe it or not, this is not 100% accurate.
The federal government does carry out a number of worthwhile and important duties for the American public, and, typically, the more important it is the less they are able to talk about it.
It’s a perfect storm. If a function of government is important and exciting, such as a State Department officer’s delicate negotiations to quietly build lasting and cordial relations with a foreign government in a volatile part of the world or a CIA operation to recruit agents in the Chinese Navy — we’ll never hear about these things for obvious reasons. If a function of government is legitimate but boring, like a public-private partnership to build a dam or interdict human trafficking, we are unlikely to hear about that because those stories don’t keep advertisers coming back to buy more ad space.
The only stories that tend to get high exposure in the conservative media are those tales of silly pork projects and cases of genuine overreach and tyranny — and this distorts our attitudes and dialogue.
The majority of Americans are familiar with government overreach and amenable to the message of greater liberty through conservative reform. However, they are also familiar with cases in which they or someone they know has had a positive experience with the government. If all they hear from the Right is angry fist-shaking and vows to “let it burn!” we are going to come off as out-of-touch and more than a little bit wacko.
If conservatives intend on building broad electoral coalitions, we need to be passionate, but we also need to be smart.