Reform Conservatives Are Friends, Not Foes

“Liberty in practice depends on very prosaic matters, and those anxious to preserve it must prove their devotion by their attention to the mundane concerns of public life and by the efforts they are prepared to give to the understanding of issues that the idealist is often inclined to treat as common, if not sordid.” – Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty


The debate has begun to decide whether so-called reform conservatives should be welcomed to the fold as true, legitimate, government-shrinking conservatives. Reason Magazine held a round table a couple weeks ago, to which contributors to The Federalist responded, considering Yuval Levin’s essay introducing the underlying philosophy of the “reformocons” (or “reformicons”) to the public arena and whether it can be considered conservative or is simply another guise under which to run people’s lives using government.

A majority of contributors are of the opinion that reform conservatism is the new neo-conservatism/compassionate conservatism that is largely useless in rolling back government intrusion and expanding liberty.

I intend to argue otherwise: that there is plenty to like about the reform conservative agenda, including some of its areas of strength that the conservative movement could use. Furthermore, returning to Constitutional government will require multiple steps of reform. We need a first step and reform conservatism is the best one we have right now.

What is reform conservatism? Like most labels, it varies with the practitioner. Some, like Joy Pullman, include people such as John McCain and Mitt Romney under the label. But centrist Republicans and moderate reform-minded conservatives are not the same thing, though their ideas may overlap at times.

Levin speaks of it in general terms in the following way:

’Reform conservatism’ refers to an effort not to change conservatism but rather to change American government in accordance with the sorts of conservative ideas laid out here. It speaks of an approach to public policy that seeks not to decimate government—cutting its size without regard for its purpose—but to curtail it by transforming its character through an understanding both of its proper purpose and of the proper mechanisms of policy and administration.

Such a conservatism will involve itself in the details of public-policy debates and not limit itself to the level of abstraction. Some conservatives recoil from such details, taking arguments about them to be concessions to the technocratic mind-set. But in fact, involvement in such debates is the only way to transform our governing institutions—to imbue them with an antitechnocratic modesty that makes possible continual improvements against a background of constructive stability.

The essay from which the preceding quote is taken is the primary source which Reason’s roundtable’s and The Federalist’s contributors consider in their responses, along with an e-book called ‘Room to Grow,’ which features policy pieces from Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, Jim Pethokoukis, James Capretta and others.

There is one particular policy proposal that most of the debaters are hung up on: an expansion of the child tax credit. Although, Levin mentions it only once in passing, a number of skeptical commentators focus on it, such as Ben Domenech:

The child tax credit, on the other hand, takes everyone’s money, and returns some people’s money, but only if those people engage in certain government-sanctioned behavior. The animating principle behind this brand of social engineering seems to be: “if there are to be takers, let them look like us.”

Domenech is not making a racial statement here, but is rather crudely saying that reformocons hope to reward behaviors of which they approve. ([O]ne thing is for sure: Massively expanding the child tax credit would allow Republican politicians to buy votes with other people’s money.” – Nick Gillespie)

This reveals a difference of underlying philosophy between Levin and Domenech. Levin’s philosophy does not assume that mankind is automatically good when given freedom; therefore incentives matter, a premise that leads to the potential danger of government having too much influence in people’s lives, regardless of its intentions.

Domenech’s premise is no less dangerous. I agree with Rachel Lu’s concern that “we’ve just accepted the (modern, secular) idea that a value-neutral government, suffused with aggressively secular commitments, is the only alternative to being suffocated by the modern administrative state.”

Whether there is a third option besides a technocratic and a value-neutral government may be one of the eternal questions of conservatism. Among reformocons, Levin, at least, seems to have found a way to reconcile the power of the market with a more complete understanding of man than homo economicus. But do his (and other reformocons’) reforms strengthen mediating institutions and shrink government?

Daniel Payne, for one, believes the answer is no, writing,“I think what reformicons miss is that, if you play the slow, ponderous, moderate-style “reform” game, you’re just going to get outgunned by liberalism in very short order.”

We are actually playing the game the way Payne presumably thinks it should be played right now – and losing. The “slow, ponderous” style of reform is what liberals have been successful at for 80 years, so why not adopt their winning, long-term strategy? The American founding philosophy has been eroded for the last 4 or 5 generations. If it is not restored, who cares how good a sales pitch we make?

It is time for conservatives to recognize that, unfortunately, we have been much better at and spent much more time opposing liberal policies than offering conservative alternatives. Again, I agree with Rachel Lu that it is odd that few participants in the discussion had much to say about the Reformocon goal of decentralization, which, as she puts it, “might help us to break the stranglehold of oppressive, faceless government institutions without just coming across as political obstructionists.”

This leads to a problem. As Levin puts it,

To avoid thinking about public policy altogether and argue only that there ought to be less of it is to let the Left define the role of government in accordance with its own ideas of the human person and society while the Right merely bargains over the size of the errors we make.

Again, Levin is concerned with finding a third option besides a technocratic and a value-neutral government. The skeptical contributors to the discussion seem to understand him and his fellow reformocons to be attempting “to wrest control of the welfare state from liberals” and to “recast it to advance conservative values” by reforming it from the inside.

The intention, however, is to reform from within as a step to getting rid of it (at least at the federal level) altogether.

The modern American welfare state is a house of cards, or as I like to think of it, a tower of Jenga blocks: pull the wrong one out or do so too quickly or without caution and the whole thing will come tumbling down. Generations of Americans have grown up relying – to their detriment – on a welfare state that is a tangled web of bad incentives.

Most have developed not in an attempt to make man independent, but to dull the negative effects, the unintended consequences, of other bad policies. This leads to an inevitable growth in reliance on government, like a person who takes a pill to counter the side effect of another pill.

The point of reform conservative is that it recognizes this reality. Perhaps Levin does not emphasize enough that reform conservatism intends

[to] begin from where we are, but it would seek to change the basic organizing principle of public policy at the federal level, and so to set in motion a vast transformation of the government’s role that would, over time, both restrain the government’s reach and help restore a proper understanding of its aims and limits in our constitutional system.

Taking into account what Levin calls “conservative anthropology,” which begins with the premise of man’s flawed nature, conservatives understand that people become accustomed to government intrusion. Instead, as we work to return to Constitutionally-limited government, one goal of policy reform should be to accustom people to liberty and to independence.

Because reform conservatism is more an approach than a set of policy prescriptions (such as the child tax credit), there is much room and potential for debate and improvement. Jason Kuznicki raises the danger of there being strings attached even to these reformed policies. He also offers a fantastic pro-civil society argument against the War on Drugs – which this is not the place to discuss – that reformocons themselves may be able to get behind.

In other words, the policies can be tweaked, but the underlying philosophy of reform conservatism, which strives towards Burke’s standard of a statesman, “a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together,” is something that the Conservative Movement could use a little more of.

Because it takes into account the influence government’s shape (and not just its size) has on people and mediating institutions, reform conservatism is one of the best shots we have right now at achieving lasting liberty. It can be contrasted favorably with actual “conservative” social engineering of the kind endorsed by, say, Mike Huckabee. Reform conservatives and their expertise should be welcomed into the conservative fold in just another contrast to the silliness of the Left.