What "Conservative Reformers" Can Learn From Libertarians


Who counts as a conservative reformer? The Washington Monthly recently offered a list—complete with superhero-playing-card-style power rankings and reformer scores—which sparked some follow-up between, among others, Michael Tomasky, Mike Konczal, and Paul Krugman. The discussion started on the left, but yesterday New York Times columnist Ross Douthat weighed in, attempting to separate out several strains of "reform conservatism"—a slightly awkward phrase that has cropped up in various conversations about policy-minded attempts to reform the agenda of the conservative movement and the Republican party.

Part of the awkwardness comes from how many disparate sets it tends to include; as Douthat notes, it has the potential to include anyone from Bush-era compassionate conservatives like Michael Gerson, to critical centrists like David Frum, to libertarianish populists like Tim Carney, and even to what Douthat calls "pragmatic libertarians" like myself and my wife, Megan McArdle.

But the core of reform conservatism, as Douthat sees it, is a group of wonks and political writers like Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review and AEI, as well as Douthat and Reihan Salam, who in 2008 coauthored Grand New Party.

That book served as a sort of proto reform conservative manifesto, arguing that Republicans should gently abandon Reagan-era reforms in order to refocus on policies designed to help create economic and social stability amongst working class Americans. And it helped set the tone, if not always the particular agenda for much of today's reform conservatism; the policy specifics the book argued for ended up being less important than its broader argument that the GOP could revitalize its prospects for electoral and policy success by adopting an economic agenda slightly wonkier and more apparently focused on middle class woes than simply cutting marginal tax rates allowed.

Conservative reformers in the Grand New Party mold are still trying to figure out how, exactly, to do that. Douthat outlines a basic policy agenda, some of which looks good (repeal Obamacare, and move toward a system of universal catastrophic insurance, an "attack on explicit subsidies for powerful incumbents") or at least preferable (a Wyden-Ryan style reform of Medicare) to the status quo, and some of which will come across as perhaps a little too hung up on social conservative priorities (tax reform that not only lowers rates and caps deductions, but also "reduces the burden on working parents and the lower middle class") or too willing to play along with what can look like working class nativism (immigration reform that "doesn't necessarily seek to accelerate the pace of low-skilled immigration" and offers legal status only following the implementation of E-Verify).

In some ways, what it adds up to is conservative wonks looking for ways to say, "Hey, we do too care!" while gently promoting some familiar conservative social goals. For anyone with libertarian impulses, it's a mixed bag, one that both recognizes limits on the government's capability to carry out large-scale social plans, and yet still pins too many of its hopes and goals on tax-code tweaks and bureaucratic management of the labor supply. It's an agenda informed by many practical libertarian critiques of government in a narrow sense (Douthat has become more libertarian in his approach to certain policy areas, like health care) but still relies on government to carry out, or at least encourage, its broad goals of shoring up middle class economic stability and social cohesion.

Still, it's an important conversation to have, and one that should be of interest to libertarians.

Because in the bigger picture, the question at the heart of reform conservatism is not really about precisely how to reorient the GOP toward a (perhaps more than a little symbolic) middle-class policy mix. Instead, it's simpler, and more fundamental: What should the GOP's domestic policy agenda be? Because right now, the party doesn't really have one.


Oh sure, it has Paul Ryan's budget, and it has a zillion and one votes to repeal Obamacare, and a vague notion that tax reform would be nice. The Ryan budget is the closest of these to a full-fledged policy framework, but it's a framework the GOP tends to like much better in theory than in practice. Which is why, even after selecting Ryan to be his running mate last year, the GOP's presidential nominee Mitt Romney never quite owned his ticket-mate's budget plan. Romney liked the fuzzy idea of Ryan, the wonk, the man, and the plan, but didn't quite want to commit to all the details.

Or, for that matter, any details that could possibly be left for later. Indeed, Romney's Wiffle ball of a campaign is perhaps the best and biggest illustration of the GOP's ongoing combination of timidity, confusion, and essential blankness on domestic policy, and there's little sign that the party has figured itself out in the months since the campaign has ended.

That's part of the reason why conservative reformers of various stripes have gotten so much attention recently—eventually, something will have to fill the void. The agenda Douthat outlines is perhaps one possibility, and simply because it's a basically coherent policy outlook might even be preferable in a lot of ways to the sort of short-term thinking that grips the GOP right now. But although it has a number of high profile supporters, so far it doesn't seem to be having much success in the actual halls of power. Indeed, if there is an upstart reform movement in the Republican party that actually seems to be gaining traction at the moment, it's the one that draws more from the libertarian side of the right than from Douthat's brand of lightly technocratic soft-social conservatism.

Part of the reason the Rand Pauls of the world have had some success recently is that there's space for an anti-establishment faction within the Republican party, and a growing frustration with the arrogance and ineffectiveness of the old guard. But that faction has also—though not always consistently—drawn from two important, and related, libertarian insights: that government, especially large and complex government, is not a very effective tool for doing lots of things, and that, as a result, it's not a terribly useful tool for achieving big-picture social goals. I'm tempted to say that it embraces a politics of difference, but that probably goes a little too far. Instead, it embraces a politics of privateness, one that assumes, as a given, that the public realm, and public policy, can only accomplish so much, and that they should be limited accordingly. It's another, still-evolving brand of conservative reformism, one that also says it cares—not by what it tries to do for you (or to you), but by what it promises it won't.