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The Federalist Debates Reform Conservatism


Contributors to The Federalist debated reform conservatism in reaction to a forum at Reason featuring Yuval Levin, Ben Domenech, and others weighing in on the movement.

Ben Domenech

Conservatism today encompasses a mix of ideological strains and political motives. One of its most prominent intellectual strains is classical liberalism, which holds that free people, endowed with the rights of life and liberty, exchanging property within a free market, are the best directors of their fate.

This is an inclusive message, facilitating the hopes and dreams of every man and woman of every race and creed. It understands that humanity is fallible, public institutions led by people are given to error, and therefore, the force of government ought to be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. This strain has allowed libertarians who believe in limited government and individual freedom to work together with conservatives despite the many philosophical differences between them.

But the political program that has been emerging in the Republican Party in recent years does not resemble this. Instead, it sadly amounts to little more than identity politics for white folks. It is a crass and often anti-intellectual trend that is wedded to persistent (and often left-wing) fictions about the threat of economic freedom and creative destruction. But it remains a powerful force within the American right and arises in electoral politics as regularly as stomach acid from too much red meat. From it are born many pernicious beliefs: One, government must act to subdue the impulses of free individuals, even if there is no clear or direct harm to others. Two, government bureaucrats, instead of the market, ought to determine how many people from which countries and in what careers ought to be allowed to live and work in America. Three, the global free enterprise system, driven by technology and trade, is a destructive economic force that rewards the haves and punishes the have-nots, and must be tamed through mandates, tariffs, and subsidies. And four, broad-based social engineering is needed to counter government and market failures and to sustain an idealized version of American society (think Leave it to Beaver but where a mustachioed Ward works in a steel mill in perpetuity).

Reform conservatism, in my view, is an attempt to find a new way for the classical liberal ideas and the “identity politics” of conservatism to live together in a political coalition. “Reformocon” is a vague term—it is still not clearly defined for me. There are many ideas that comprise the reformocon agenda, some fine and some not. Among the fine ideas from a limited government standpoint are: a general opposition to cronyism, support for rolling back regulatory requirements, and support for eliminating some energy subsidies. But the objections to cronyism and energy subsidies do not, apparently, extend to ethanol. Among the not-so-fine proposals that dabble in identity politics are: perpetually extending unemployment benefits; restricting legal immigration; enhancing transportation spending; offering wage, relocation and child-related subsidies; suspicion—or outright denigration—of growth-maximizing tax agendas; and fear of robots taking jobs.

Why is reform conservatism such a grab bag of “good” and “bad” ideas? Because it understands the central political problem of the GOP—that Mitt Romney’s loss brought to the fore—is the huge chasm between the economic agenda/priorities of the party and those of the middle and working class.

As political analysis goes, this is largely accurate. Even before Mitt Romney’s dig at the 47 percent non-income-tax paying Americans, he was already a difficult man to relate to. He was a poor advocate for what free enterprise had to offer all Americans, and his policy proposals often flew in the face of sound fiscal conservatism.

But here’s the interesting thing: the reason why the cohort of no-income-tax-paying “takers” has expanded to 47 percent is the creation and expansion of the child tax credit, a Republican brainchild. It was created in the 1990s by the Republican-controlled Congress as a way to lighten the load on working families and reward those who bear children. But then social conservatives prodded George W. Bush to more than double the credit. The Tax Foundation found that between 2000 and 2004, this expanded child credit accounted for an increase in non-income-tax-paying taxpayers by 10.5 million, a 32-percent jump. The reformocons now want to double down on this approach, as their enthusiasm for the tripling of child tax credit in the Rubio-Lee tax reform proposal shows.

The fiscal effects of this massive child tax credit have attracted the most consternation, but there are other objectionable aspects too that Levin’s essay unwittingly highlights. Levin notes that reformocons are open to both “an expanded child credit and significant payroll-tax cut” as if these approaches were fungible. But there is a vast difference between the two: The payroll-tax cut lets all working Americans, regardless of their family structure, keep more of their own money, truly empowering individuals and private institutions, and along the way, helping families as well. 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.”

This is a marked break from classical liberal ideas which have optimistic faith in individuals, civil society, and markets, and seek to lower the burden of government’s cost for all working Americans, regardless whether they live and behave in ways some conservatives prefer. (Read the rest here.)

Rachel Lu:

It’s very strange to me that three separate people would read and respond to Levin’s piece without saying almost anything about subsidiarity, which was one of his major themes. One of the principal objectives of the Reformocons is to find ways to decentralize government. That seems to me like a conservative objective, and one that might help us to break the stranglehold of oppressive, faceless government institutions without just coming across as political obstructionists. (“The Party of No.”) So it’s odd that other participants in the roundtable didn’t have much to say about that.

As I see it, there are two reasons why one might like the Reformocons. One is pragmatic. However much you hate the welfare state, elderly entitlements and so forth, simply abolishing them isn’t politically possible. It’s better to talk reform than to do nothing at all, but “nothing at all” has for the most part been the road taken by the GOP. Perhaps Reformocon suggestions aren’t all good, but at least they’re trying to come up with alternatives to the status quo that the general public might possibly accept. That’s a good thing.

The other possibly-appealing thing is that Reformocons are willing to work with a “thicker” view of liberty and human good than many conservative intellectuals today are willing to countenance. All three respondents notice this and react with distaste, accusing Levin of social engineering, lacking faith in free enterprise, and so on. I confess that I’m laughing a little here about your essay in particular, because you accuse the Reformocons of being “crass” and then go on to make what to me seems like the most crass suggestion of the whole roundtable: that Reformocons only favor marriage and family over libertine alternatives is an expression of white-middle-class boosterism. Do you really believe that?

To me it seems like a good portion of the conservative movement has in recent years has given itself over to what I sometimes snarkily describe as “a giant, bonanza celebration of the naked public square.” 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. But as some of us see it, this vision is itself just a slightly-less-advanced version of the same disease, which can’t possibly function as a true or effective longer-term guardian of our liberty. Obviously a great many people disagree with this perspective, but it surely isn’t crass. I think the Reformocon approach (involving more subsidiarity, loosely supported by a more-substantive vision of human good) is an attempt to translate a more Aristotelian or perhaps Burkean strain of conservative though into a pragmatic policy agenda.

D.C. McAllister

First, it speaks volumes, at least to me, that nowhere in these pieces is the word “local” used. I realize that it is implied in the libertarian and classical liberal commentaries, but it’s still, in my mind, significant that it is not explicitly addressed. Until you understand “limited government” in local terms (not just as a matter of scope and/or finances), you will not be able to find resolution to the tension between man needing to be free and man needing to be governed because he is (to a degree), as Yuval says, “a mess.”

Second, Jefferson said, “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Law, not interventionist government programs, promotes the civil society and the freedom of the individual. Our founding fathers had no purely positive view of man (which is why they didn’t trust government–we should be cautious of putting power into the hands of fallible humans. It’s best to limit their power.) But they also didn’t have an entirely negative view of man either. The best check on human imperfection, as they saw it, is the law, the Constitution, not a reformative or interventionist government. And what does the Constitution do? It limits power. How does it do that? It makes federal power small, and local power big. Why? Because the people are most involved at the local level–where they have a voice and where the “mischief” of man can be best contained. The greatest mischief a man can engage in is using power to rule over others. This mischief is, therefore, chained when the Constitution is functioning as intended, limiting power and freeing the individual (and the markets)—not for the purpose of promoting a utopian society (in conservative or progressive terms), but to restrain evil.

Daniel Payne:

I like it, and it encapsulates well how I feel about reformiconism, which often seeks to just play the same game as liberalism but with moderately conservative policies. “Let’s try this byzantine tax structure and see if this produces the desired result thirty years down the line.” Uh, no. Also, yeah, I haven’t ever had this damn movement really satisfactorily defined. It’s just…there. Ephemeral. Like the 7 Society at UVA: you know it exists, but you’re not sure if you’ve ever met anyone in it.

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. Saying, “Well, we should try a new set of family-friendly tax credits and proposals to offset the costs of childcare for two-earner households blah blah blah” is going to fall flat when the liberal hordes start screaming about how you want to slash WIC and deny breastfeeding women the kale protein shakes they need to survive. If you can’t make a visceral, full-throated case for why slashing the tax rate is going to help individuals and families—if you want to act like you can pass a few moderate proposals per year and strike a blow against the stunningly enormous machine of the post-New Deal liberal political order—well, there’s nothing in that movement for me, and it will fail, and everyone will be worse off.

Joy Pullmann

I of course appreciate what reformicons are trying to do, but I don’t find them appealing at all, as a midwestern mom who works for a living and lives among the aspiring lower-income and suburban types the GOP desperately needs to attract. ​The agenda is way too complicated and way too detached. At root, it still sounds a lot more like a lite version of the Democrat Party—”here’s what government will do for you”—than a vibrant, competing vision: “imagine what you could do without government holding you down.” Being Democrats lite is what has lost Republicans both our recent slew of elections and the on-the-ground energy that propelled Obama to the presidency twice, despite his obvious deficiencies. There’s nothing inspiring about a managerial Progressive, e.g. a Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, or John McCain. The GOP donor class can either lose with their candidate or win with a good one. It’s that simple.

I know the dilemma is how to restore a civil society government has displaced. The reformicon answer seems to be keeping government programs operative, but making them work better, according to “market-like” principles. But government programs can never be market-like. When we’re all receiving vouchers for every major expense, it’s still socialism. The same internal incentives exist that will destroy any market mechanisms: special-interest capture, monopsonies, monopolies, cartels, etc. And then we’re right back where we started. Or, really, we never left.

So, for example, as a mother of four, I’m attracted to the idea of huge child tax credits that would erase almost all of our federal tax liability. But as a sister, neighbor, and citizen, I’m even more attracted to the idea of lowering rates and ending special-interest carveouts for everyone. People don’t really have fewer children because of lack of income so much as we have fewer children because we don’t have the support network to help care for them. We live away from our kids’ grandparents; our friends don’t volunteer to watch the kids free so we can have a night out or make a doctor’s appointment solo. Our local schools are mediocre at best. Our kids can’t get job experience until they’re at least 16, if they’re lucky enough to find a boss who will pay a bumbling kid $7.25 to screw up his store for a while. College costs are downright terrifying.

Government  shouldn’t send me babysitters. But it can make raising kids massively less expensive through a pro-family policy that also works for everyone who doesn’t have a family. End ethanol, farm, and sugar subsidies and reduce my grocery bills. End expensive and intrusive federal micromanagement of schools. Stop promoting college at the expense of early work experience. All these things can be framed in positive, can-do ways, and so can a litany of other conservative ideas that actually reduce government while presenting a highly contrasting agenda that empowers and communicates trust in individuals to manage their own affairs. Frame it as what X politician plans to do to remove these stifling impediments to designing our own happiness.

David Marcus

I thought this was very interesting and useful, though I agree with you that I am still not sure I know exactly what a reformicon is. It did strengthen some suspicions though. I’ve said this before, but reformicons remind me of neocons in that they have a voice in the conversation without having a constituency. What was/is impressive about neocons (if hard pressed I probably consider myself one) is that they exert power without a solid voting block. They do it through intellectual influence, and I think thats what the reformicons are up to as well. Your notion that they are sort of paying lip service to conservative identity politics was new to me, and I need to think about it but it sounds pretty right on. And it does reek of a “lets hit all the notes the base wants to hear and then we can cut the important deals in erudite private quarters.” Gillespie makes a good point with Reagan, eventually a government program that people come to rely on simply becomes entrenched. Its probably already happened with the ACA. Maybe the reformicons want to expand existing programs in lieu of the creation of new government monsters. If so it might not be a bad strategy, But there is an elitist vein in their thought that I think most conservatives will find troubling.

Leslie Loftis

Reformicons, they are American Tories. Back the run up to 2010, non-American friends used to ask for American politics explainers. Obama had turned into a resounding disappointment and they wondered why they had misread him and worried even more about the Tea Party because it simply didn’t make sense to them. Though many discussions, I saw the disconnect. Brits, and Europeans even moreso, looked to government for everything. They waited for government to step in. They did not ask why government had a right to do something. They asked if individuals had permission from government to act. This, more than anything else, made me feel like the stranger in a strange land. Government covered everything. Tories simply offered different solutions than Labor.

So it was with Compassionate Conservatives then and Reformicons now. They seek to design government programs to get the results they desire. The idea that, perhaps, government should get out of the way and let communities of individuals organize themselves as best suits their community doesn’t sway them. They take it as a given that We the People need a benevolent government of learned hands crafting guidelines and do not see the irony. Conservatism, Levin claims, can hardly hope to reverse the big government trends, “or to advance a different vision of American life, because it lets the Left define the terms of debate and makes the Right forget what it seeks to champion and defend.” I completely agree.

Rich Cromwell

As Ben notes, the “Reformicon” label isn’t clearly defined, but its roots are. When George W. Bush rode into the White House on a platform of Compassionate Conservatism, the roots of reform conservatism were planted. Events prevented Bush from keeping his focus on the domestic front, but the heart of the Reformicon agenda is of a piece with the work he started. The major difference is that now the agenda is narrower. Whereas Bush sought to reach new audiences, the new agenda is, back to Ben, “identity politics for white people.”

It wasn’t as evident with McCain and the other elected officials who splashed around Foggy Bottom between 2008 and 2012, but it again came to the fore with Mitt Romney’s candidacy. In Mitt, Republicans started to go full Reformicon – they didn’t offer to strip back bad social engineering so much as replace it with new forms of social engineering with better management.

It’s not a message without an audience. The problem is that it’s a message rooted in limiting principles. It assumes that the solution isn’t our animal spirits, but incentives for an ever-shrinking population with the assumption that other populations will see the fruits and want to take a bite for themselves.

Alas, for incentives to work, the Reformicons have to acknowledge the world as it is, not as one wants it to be. Reformicon incentives don’t see the world as it is – their incentives don’t even work particularly well for those who actually belong to the ever-shrinking population – and those outside that group are left trapped in the Byzantine labyrinth that the Reformicon agenda only re-maps, but doesn’t destroy.

If Reformicons actually wanted to offer a distinct alternative, they’d eschew attempts at social engineering via the tax code and regulations and instead remember UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Wooden always had a plan, but he also reminded his teams of a simple truth: “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.”

John Davidson

Once you get past their rhetorical gestures toward conservative principles, in practice reformicons prefer technocratic solutions to social problems, much like their counterparts on the Left. For as much as Yuval Levin’s essay invokes conservative wisdom about the limits of human nature and the wisdom of relying on mediating institutions, much of the reformicon policy agenda relies heavily on the knowledge and technical proficiency of government bureaucracies to ameliorate various societal ills.

Ben’s essay does a good job of providing examples of this and explaining the politics underlying this tension, and Jason Kuznicki’s take correctly notes that reform conservatism tends not to acknowledge that the single greatest threat to mediating institutions is federal government itself. Nick Gillespie is also right to note that the much of the reformicon agenda is “social engineering achieved via the tax code rather than traditional edict.”

My sense is that reformicons operate from the premise that New Deal-era policies of wealth redistribution and aggressive economic regulation are permanent, and the best one can do is learn to live with them and control them. The best way to do that, they presume, is to make sure Democrats aren’t in charge of the government. But that’s a rather paltry ambition for conservatism as a governing philosophy.

It took about a half-century for Progressives to erect the kind of state they thought was necessary to manage the modern American project, and it will take at least that long to dismantle it. But dismantling it must be our aim, at the local, state, and federal level, rather than making it more palatable to certain voting blocs. New Dealism has so thoroughly permeated every facet of society that one is hard-pressed to think of any endeavor, public or private, that is not shaped by the changes inaugurated in our government during the first three decades of the last century.

While all discussions about reform must at some point get down to the details of policy, if you wind up landing on a program to increase the child tax credit, then you have erred somewhere along the way. I suspect the great divide between reformicons and libertarians (or rather, actual classical liberals) is that the former wishes to control the welfare state while the latter seeks to dismantle it altogether—even sacred cows like Medicare.

Levin says as much himself, claiming that, “At the very least, this [agenda] would involve moving the government away from large managerial roles toward far smaller facilitating ones.” Yet even in a facilitating role, the government’s distorting effects would be massive. Witness the ways in which the “facilitation” of government in the form of Obamacare effectively co-opts private industries into quasi-official agents with powerful incentives to implement government policies and comply with mandates.

The point is that reformicons seem to accept the role of government as defined by the New Deal, and that true reform must have as its goal a complete repudiation of the New Deal at every level of government. I suspect that goal, if taken seriously, will produce rather different policy proposals than what we’ve seen so far from the reformicons.