Reform Conservatism

Reason Roundtable: Is Reform Conservatism a Friend or Foe of Limited Government?

Advocates and critics debate the merits of a more populist approach to right-of-center politics.

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In this Roundtable:

Shikha Dalmia: Introduction: Is Reform Conservatism Friend or Foe of Limited Government?
Yuval Levin: Liberty Needs the Strong Families and Communities that Reformocons Emphasize
Ben Domenech: Reform Conservatism: Lofty Vision, Crass Politics
Jason Kuznicki: Reformocons Ignore that Government is the Main Threat to Families and Communities
Nick Gillespie: Reform Conservatism: More Conservatism, Less Reform

Introduction:

Ideas have consequences and a recent idea that is already generating major consequences in the political world is "reform conservatism." It is barely out of the womb and it is spawning serious policy proposals such as the Rubio-Lee tax reform bill (that I've written about here and here). Conceived by some of the nation's most prominent conservatives, reform conservatism is an ambitious undertaking that seeks to simultaneously advance an array of electoral, political, and social aims.

Its primary electoral aim is to apply the lesson of Mitt Romney's 2012 "shellacking" to help the GOP once again become the majority party. And as far as it's concerned, that lesson is not that the GOP needs first and foremost to stop the stampede of Hispanic and other minority voters to the Democratic Party as conventional analyses suggest. It is that the GOP has to stop coming across as the rich guy's party that is in the pay of corporations and out of touch with the great American middle class, which is being itself "shellacked" by the forces of globalization. The GOP's central problem is to craft a pro-middle class agenda. And this requires a major rebranding of the party with an unabashedly populist message on fiscal/tax, economic, and social policy.

Reformocons'—as the adherents of this movement like to be called—main political goal is to wrest control of the welfare state from liberals and recast it to advance conservative values and constituencies. This, they say, requires not railing against the welfare state—as Republicans have been prone to doing—but reforming it from the inside.

And their fundamental social objective is to strengthen families and communities whose decline, they believe, is America's number one problem. Every healthy society needs intact families and functioning communities—or what reformocons call "mediating institutions"—especially one that wants to stay free rather than degenerate into despotism or anarchy.

But the question for libertarians, of course, is whether these three goals can be accomplished while staying true to America's core commitment to limited government?

Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs and the father of reform conservatism, whose edited volume Room to Grow offers something of a manifesto and policy blueprint for reformocons, takes up that question in his opening essay for this Reason Roundtable. While describing and defending the basic philosophical assumptions underpinning reform conservatism, he answers with a resounding "yes."

Reform conservatism, he notes, is about moving the welfare-state model to the market-oriented model (or mediating-institutions model). "At the very least, this would involve moving the government away from large managerial roles toward far smaller facilitating ones. But, wherever possible, it would also involve devolving power and resources to the mediating institutions of society," he notes.

But the responders to Levin don't quite see it that way.

Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist and a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, notes that while Levin's philosophical case for reform conservatism is "inspirational," its "poll-tested policy bullet points" are less so.  It seems to succumb to some of conservatives' most "anti-intellectual…persistent (and often left-wing) fictions about the threats of economic freedom and creative destruction," he points out, all of which will inevitably nurture distrust towards markets.

Jason Kuznicki, editor of Cato Unbound, wholeheartedly agrees with Levin that civil society or "mediating institutions" need to be strengthened (because they are both an alternative to and bulwark against an overweening government). But, he believes, that reformocons are attacking the wrong end of the problem. How? By ignoring that these "institutions of our society have been under sustained attack for many years now, and the attacker has been the federal government itself."

And Reason.com's Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie notes that while there are significant places where the reformocon policy agenda overlaps with a libertarian world-view, there are stark philosophical differences between the two. "In important ways, the reformocon agenda strikes me as right-wing social engineering achieved via the tax code rather than traditional edict."

Check out this stimulating discussion.

Shikha Dalmia

 

Also in this Roundtable:

Shikha Dalmia: Introduction: Is Reform Conservatism Friend or Foe of Limited Government?
Yuval Levin: Liberty Needs the Strong Families and Communities that Reformocons Emphasize
Ben Domenech: Reform Conservatism: Lofty Vision, Crass Politics
Jason Kuznicki: Reformocons Ignore that Government is the Main Threat to Families and Communities
Nick Gillespie: Reform Conservatism: More Conservatism, Less Reform

Liberty Needs the Strong Families and Communities that Reformocons Emphasize

by Yuval Levin

All those concerned about limited government—conservatives and libertarians—have watched in dismay as the Obama administration has expanded the size, scope, cost, and role of the federal government. They have fought this expansion tooth-and-nail and, since the congressional elections of 2010, have at least managed to restrain it some.

Yuval Levin. Photo by National Affairs

But pure oppositionalism can do little more than restrain the advance of Big Government. It can hardly hope to reverse it, 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. To achieve enduring reforms, the Right must reconnect with the core principles and assumptions that inform our understanding of politics and apply those to the challenges of our time.

Over the past decade or so, a loose collection of scholars, policy analysts, writers, and politicians has gradually taken shape to do just that. What generally unites its members (myself included), who have come to be called "reform conservatives," is not a specific policy agenda but a general disposition. 

That disposition, at least as I think of it, begins from the conservative view of man and society. Conservatives tend to see the human person as an incorrigible mass of contradictions: a fallen and imperfect being created in a divine image, a creature possessed of fundamental dignity and inalienable rights but always prone to excess and sin and ever in need of self-restraint and moral formation. This view gives conservatives high standards but low expectations of human affairs and makes us wary of utopianism.

It also leaves us more impressed with successful human institutions than we are outraged at failed ones, and therefore makes us protective of our inheritance and eager to build on the longstanding institutions of our society to improve things. We believe, with Edmund Burke and F.A. Hayek, that these institutions embody more knowledge than we can readily perceive and more wisdom than any collection of technical experts, however capable, is ever likely to have. 

This anthropology informs our sociology. The conservative vision of society is moved by a low opinion of the capacity of individuals to address complex problems even as it is informed by a high regard for the rights and freedoms of those individuals. So it seeks social arrangements that counterbalance human ignorance and vice while respecting human liberty and dignity. And it finds these in the mediating institutions of a free society—families, communities, civic and religious groups, markets, and more—that stand between the individual and the state.

This regard for mediating institutions is reinforced by our sense of the limits of human knowledge and power. Because we think the human person is something of a mess, and because we think societies and their members flourish through mediating institutions, we are very skeptical of claims of rational control and technocratic management. Large social problems are too complicated to be amenable to centralized, wholesale, technical solutions and instead require decentralized, bottom-up, incremental ones. Societies evolve and improve and solve practical problems not by consolidated jerks of authority from above but by diffuse trial and error from below. Allowing society's institutions and members the freedom for such efforts is more likely to make society smarter than allowing technical experts to manage large systems.

When a society is allowed to become smarter through such institutions, it usually does so in a particular way: by allowing people to try different approaches to meeting the needs of their fellows, allowing the people who have those needs to choose among the options they are offered, and allowing those choices to matter so that successes are retained and failures go away. These three steps—experimentation, evaluation, and evolution—offer a kind of general recipe for addressing complex social problems while respecting human liberty and acknowledging the limits of human knowledge and power.

The liberal welfare state tries to address large problems without allowing for any of these steps. Administrative centralization and regulatory prescription prevent open experimentation with different ways of providing services, the recipients of services don't decide what is working and failing, and (thanks to interest-group politics and cronyism) failures rarely go away.

Genuinely competitive markets are ideally suited to following these steps. They offer powerful incentives to try new ways of doing things, the people directly affected decide which ways they like best—and those that they don't like are left behind. That is why conservatives often reach for the language of markets in public policy—if not necessarily always for actual markets. To the extent possible, they try to replicate in public policy the three-step incremental learning process that allows society to improve by learning from experience.  

What has come to be called the conservative reform agenda in recent years largely involves different ways of moving from the welfare-state model to the market-oriented model (or mediating-institutions model) in different arenas of public policy—from K-12 and higher education to health care, entitlement reform, welfare, and more. At the very least, this would involve moving the government away from large managerial roles toward far smaller facilitating ones. But, wherever possible, it would also involve devolving power and resources to the mediating institutions of society.

This would not only reduce the size and scope of government, it would also improve its ability to help society address the challenges it faces, curb opportunities for cronyism and self-dealing, and give people more reasons to play active roles in their communities. Such "reform conservatism" would 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. 

These are not all new ideas, of course. Indeed, they are applications of very longstanding principles and insights. They are new only in that they answer to changing circumstances—but that difference matters.

Consider tax policy. The next supply-side tax reform should, like past ones, be geared to better supporting growth, lowering rates, providing broad-based tax relief, and reducing distortions in the government's treatment of differently situated people. In today's environment, some reform-minded conservatives think this should mean focusing on the business tax code more than conservatives did before taxes on business investment became such conspicuous barriers to growth and competitiveness, emphasizing individual marginal-rate reductions less than we did when rates were much higher, delivering more relief through payroll-tax cuts than we did before payroll taxes became the main sources of most Americans' tax burdens, and building on past efforts to address the distorting mistreatment of parents in our tax and entitlement systems. So they have floated proposals that combine aggressive pro-growth business tax reforms with a simplified individual code that offers lower income-tax rates and an expanded child credit or significant payroll-tax cut.

I'm certain that those who have been termed reform conservatives don't all agree on the fine details of any proposal. But we do tend to think that conservatism needs to be more than a brake on liberalism, and that by applying the conservative vision of man and society to the challenges America now confronts, the Right can offer the public a platform that is simultaneously more conservative and more broadly appealing than its agenda has generally been of late.

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs.

 

Also in this Roundtable:

Shikha Dalmia: Introduction: Is Reform Conservatism Friend or Foe of Limited Government?
Yuval Levin: Liberty Needs the Strong Families and Communities that Reformocons Emphasize
Ben Domenech: Reform Conservatism: Lofty Vision, Crass Politics
Jason Kuznicki: Reformocons Ignore that Government is the Main Threat to Families and Communities
Nick Gillespie: Reform Conservatism: More Conservatism, Less Reform

Reform Conservatism: Lofty Vision, Crass Politics

by Ben Domenech

As the 21st Century conservatism's most industrious public intellectual and the leading voice for reform conservatism, Yuval Levin has presented a thoughtful and philosophically consistent essay underpinning the disparate ideas that have come to be regarded as the "reform conservative" agenda. He attempts a challenging feat: to offer a coherent and an inspirational case for what are effectively a series of dry public policy white papers. But when you set Levin's deep understanding of conservatism alongside the modern poll-tested policy bullet points of reform conservatism, the weakness of the reformocon agenda become readily apparent. Levin's lofty governing philosophy is at odds with the incongruent grab bag of policies that reformocons offer.

Ben Domenech. Photo by The Federalist

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.

Levin's essay is infused with this tension. In the first half, we see expressions of common ground with those who believe in limited government: man is fallible and private institutions and markets are best. But in the second half, the policy approaches favor more activist government—which is run by man and inherently non-market—"to help society address the challenges it faces… and give people more reasons to play active roles in their communities." These two views cannot be reconciled, and no amount of "market-oriented" language—in reform conservatism as in Romneycare and Obamacare—can address government's inherent and fundamental flaws. 

The GOP might need to win elections, but the need of America's soul at this moment is not for the better use of the knobs and levers of government power. It is for a reassertion of classical liberal ideas and free enterprise to spur rapid growth, without which frayed communities cannot be strengthened. Reformocons must avoid making the same error Levin ascribes to the forces of oppositional conservatism: "[Letting] the Left define the terms of debate and make the Right forget what it seeks to champion and defend."

Benjamin Domenech is publisher of The Federalist and a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute.


Also in this Roundtable:

Shikha Dalmia: Introduction: Is Reform Conservatism Friend or Foe of Limited Government?
Yuval Levin: Liberty Needs the Strong Families and Communities that Reformocons Emphasize
Ben Domenech: Reform Conservatism: Lofty Vision, Crass Politics
Jason Kuznicki: Reformocons Ignore that Government is the Main Threat to Families and Communities
Nick Gillespie: Reform Conservatism: More Conservatism, Less Reform

Reformocons Ignore that Government is the Main Threat to Families and Communities

by Jason Kuznicki

Yuval Levin begins his essay with the following sentence:

All those concerned about limited government—conservatives and libertarians—have watched in dismay as the Obama administration has expanded the size, scope, cost, and role of the federal government.

We have. But the aside—conservatives and libertarians—quietly makes a claim that might need closer attention: Conservatives, Levin included, believe in limited government, just like libertarians.

Jason Kuznicki. Photo by The Cato Institute

Now, I am sure that Levin does believe in limited government; I am sure that many other conservatives do too. But I suspect that many on the left side of the aisle would also sign up for Levin's aside: They too believe in limited government. They just disagree on the limits, and, by their lights, Obama is doing great.

The problems with the parenthetical are therefore two: First, we don't necessarily agree on what limited government looks like. And second, we may doubt that the reformocons will be able to limit government effectively.

What exactly is Levin's definition of limited government? Can we infer it from the proposals he makes and/or links?

School choice is a pretty good limited-government idea. Now, to a libertarian, a robust voucher system may only be good by comparison to what we have right now, and a fully private education system may be the first-best solution. But still, I'm happy to see school choice get a thumbs-up. It does limit government, a bit.

Libertarians are certainly no fans of Obamacare. Untethering healthcare from the tax system as proposed by James C. Capretta and Robert E. Moffit, whose Obamacare reform proposal Levin touts as the kind of welfare reform that reformocons would seek to limit government, would also be a step in the right direction. But other parts of the Capretta-Moffit proposal I'm not sure I understand: How would we pay for "[moving] lower-income people out of the limited sphere of Medicaid options and into the same private health-insurance markets in which their fellow citizens purchase coverage"? A fully refundable tax credit might be better than Medicaid, though I'm not entirely sure of that because, over a period of time, the left would no doubt try and achieve its redistributive goals by demanding an expansion of the tax credit. I also have to wonder whether, if the sort of political capital needed to do it is ever on hand—shouldn't we try something still more ambitious?

Levin's definition of limited government might not be quite the same as ours, but it's in the ballpark. He is also right to praise the mediating institutions of civil society. I agree that we need them, and we need them to be healthy. In a freer world, they will do much of the work now done by the state.

But I can't help but think that something is lost, and not won, when our mediating institutions are paid for by the state. Even if they are not administered by technocrats, it is unimaginable that no strings would be attached if the government were funding them. And even if strings might or might not be in evidence right now, in our legislative system, they are only a compromise away. It's a danger that reform conservatism will repeatedly face if and when its ideas gain political traction.

And there is a still more important problem with Levin's effort to improve our "mediating institutions" by tinkering with the tax code and rejiggering the welfare state. It's that the mediating institutions of our society have been under sustained attack for many years now, and the attacker has been the federal government itself.

Consider the War on Drugs, a government program that effectively separates young men—especially young black men—from their families, communities, schools, and churches—and connects them permanently to a life of crime. The prison population has fallen from its all-time high of 2.4 million in 2008, but 2.26 million is still entirely too many, either by comparison to other nations or by our own falling crime rate. These individuals might otherwise be in school or employed, married, active in civic life, or otherwise doing something of value. But going to prison—or even just having had a past misdemeanor—makes them permanently less employable; and being less employable makes them more likely to go back to prison. If that weren't enough, education is harder to get, too. The damage that the Drug War—and a substandard education system, both government endeavors—have done to black communities, or the kind of "mediating institutions" that Levin is talking about, is incalculable.

These policies make it all too easy for young people to find themselves cut off from civil society. When they are, they may have few options but to turn to the state. Yes, it would be good for state programs to be efficient and intelligently administered. But it would be even better if these programs were less needed in the first place.

I would also suggest lessening our involvement in foreign conflicts. How much civil society could we buy with $1.7 trillion? What might all those talented veterans have done here at home—if they were not out fighting in wars of choice? And what must an atmosphere of constant surveillance and mistrust be doing to our civil society? If the War on Drugs were off the table, then here would seem a promising path to strengthening our civil society as well. It would incentivize and make possible stronger, more stable families, better employment prospects, and closer communal ties of all sorts.

Any conservative—reform or otherwise—seriously interested in strengthening "mediating institutions" while limiting government ought to at least begin by stopping the government's existing assaults on them. Yet one finds not a word about that in Levin's essay or the broader reformocon agenda.

Jason Kuznicki is editor of Cato Unbound.


Also in this Roundtable:

Shikha Dalmia: Introduction: Is Reform Conservatism Friend or Foe of Limited Government?
Yuval Levin: Liberty Needs the Strong Families and Communities that Reformocons Emphasize
Ben Domenech: Reform Conservatism: Lofty Vision, Crass Politics
Jason Kuznicki: Reformocons Ignore that Government is the Main Threat to Families and Communities
Nick Gillespie: Reform Conservatism: More Conservatism, Less Reform

Reform Conservatism: More Conservatism, Less Reform

by Nick Gillespie

"Today's challenges won't be met by yesterday's solutions," announces the introduction to Room to Grow, the "reform conservativism" manifesto published last summer by Yuval Levin and other reformocons. But despite such a forward-facing stance and Levin's engaging and inclusive tones in his opening essay, "reform conservatism" represents not a bold new governing philosophy for the 21st century, but an attempt to hang on to a model of the modern welfare state that is both fiscally and morally headed for bankruptcy

Nick Gillespie. Photo by Reason

Many "reformocons" worked for George W. Bush and identify completely with the Republican Party, which has done as much in the 21st century as Barack Obama and the Democrats to expand "the size, scope, cost, and role of the federal government." I don't say this to be snide or stand-offish but rather to call attention to the ease with which reformocons glide from the principled to the partisan and back again—never mind that the Patriot Act, Medicare Part D, reckless domestic and foreign spending, Sarbanes-Oxley, TARP, and more implicate conservative Republicans. The suggestion that Team Blue is uniquely destructive of limited government values is not especially convincing.

While there are significant places where the reformocon policy agenda overlaps with a libertarian world-view, there are stark philosophical differences between the two that need to be kept in clear view. Reformocons, as Levin notes, are a diverse bunch and don't agree on everything. Still, it is interesting how many of those who call themselves reformocons work at or are allied with institutions and groups working tirelessly to maintain the national security state, push an interventionist foreign policy, and restrict immigration.

Libertarians are interested in reducing the size, scope, and spending of government in all aspects of human and social activity. This is less about money and more about the proper role of government in dictating individual choices and lives. Where libertarians are generally agnostic about choices they aren't paying for, reform conservatives—like all conservatives—are much more comfortable with pushing particular outcomes when it comes to things like maintaining, say, a particular family structure or what intoxicant you use.

In important ways, the reformocon agenda strikes me as right-wing social engineering achieved via the tax code rather than traditional edict. Consider Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee's "The Economic Growth and Family Fairness Tax Plan." A product of reformocon influence, it doesn't simply "combine aggressive pro-growth business tax reforms with a simplified individual code that offers lower income-tax rates and an expanded child credit or significant payroll-tax cut," as Levin recommends. It would also, as American Enterprise Institute's James Pethokoukis, himself a reformocon, admits "lose something like $4 trillion in federal tax revenue over a decade, maybe half that if you apply 'dynamic scoring.'" One reason is the universal $2,500 child tax credit that doesn't phase out with rising income. Yet, Pethokoukis raves that "Lee and Rubio might have cooked up the first great tax cut plan of the 2000s."

In recent years, reformocons have offered up various rationales for yoking pro-growth tax policy with expanding the child tax credit. These two things have no necessary connection, after all, except that both are desired by the reformocons. Reformocons justify expanding the child tax credit by insisting how incredibly expensive it is these days to raise kids. Parents, don't you understand, deserve a tax break now because they are producing the next generation of taxpayers. Why such payments should be doled out via tax expenditures rather than straight-up transfer payments isn't clear,  though it's worth noting that low-income parents wouldn't get cash back once the credit reduces their tax bill (including payroll taxes) to zero. That's odd if the credit is supposed to cover the future contributions of your offsprings—and offset the current expenses of raising a kid. Perhaps kids born to poor parents don't cost as much? Or won't earn as much when they grow up?

Sometimes, reformocons link the need for a bigger child tax credit to an apparent need for goosing fertility rates among "middle-class" Americans (Room to Grow defines the category as those "who do not consider themselves rich or poor."). Robert Stein, a contributor to the volume, argues that old-age entitlements have lowered fertility rates to below-replacement levels throughout the developed world. The more comfortable people expect the government to make them in retirement, this argument runs, the fewer kids they have.

Let's leave aside the issue of whether governments can radically increase fertility rates over the long haul (the answer is no, whether in Stalin-era Soviet Union or  contemporary Singapore). Let me instead simply suggest that throwing money at middle- and upper-income taxpayers because they have children is unlikely to, as Levin argues, "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." More likely, it will create a new beachhead from which the government will nudge or manage individuals' lives without reducing any of the existing interferences. But one thing is for sure: Massively expanding the child tax credit would allow Republican politicians to buy votes with other people's money.

Also, the timing of this plan is particularly off-putting. We live in a moment when the fiscal unsustainability of the broadly defined social welfare state is becoming undeniable. There is a major discussion underway for the need to reform entitlement spending wholesale. This is the moment when advocates of limited government should be promulgating an end to the massive transfer of money from the relatively young and poor to the relatively old and rich. Instead, reform conservatives are proposing to effectively fund the status quo for a few more decades and push ultimately unachievable outcomes just because they find them desirable or politically advantageous in the current moment

Rather than seeking to extend the life of entitlements born of the Great Depression and hiding transfers to well-off Americans in the tax code, we should be having a forthright discussion about what sort of social safety net we want to provide to those incapable of caring for themselves. If the government wasn't responsible for us all, it would certainly be less costly and possibly more effective in helping those needing help.

Buried somewhere in my house is my birth announcement from the tail end of the baby boom era. It features a drawing of a newborn upon whose diaper is stamped "Another Tax Deduction." That was then. Now that baby boomers are retiring en masse and overwhelming the entitlement system, reform conservatives would stamp a different message on our children's diapers: "Another Future Taxpayer."

In doubling down on that which it should be dismantling, reform conservatism parallels that great patron saint both of conservatism and Republicanism, Ronald Reagan, who worked hard as hell to preserve the very programs he had once admonished. In the early and mid-1960s, Reagan attacked Medicare (not yet enacted) as socialized medicine better suited to the Soviet Union than America. In the speech he gave endorsing Barry Goldwater in 1964, Reagan groused thus about Social Security, then barely 30 years old: "Can't we introduce voluntary features that would permit a citizen to do better on his own?…We are against forcing all citizens, regardless of need, into a compulsory government program." Fast forward just a few decades, and President Reagan fought tooth and nail to protect Medicare via payroll tax increases. He had come around on Social Security, too, calling its preservation "the highest priority of my administration."

None of this should surprise anybody—the essential function of all forms of conservatism, whether Reaganite or reformocon, is to stand "athwart history, yelling Stop," as Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review, the magazine that employs several prominent reformocons, put it in the 1955.  But it shouldn't really inspire anybody, either. Not in the 21st Century.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason.com and reason.tv.