Should Libertarians Embrace Reform Conservativism? Should Conservatives?

"Reformocons" reject technocratic, top-down government solutions to pressing policy issues. What could be wrong with that? Well, for starters...


The New York Times

"Reform conservatives," writes Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, want to create space between government and the institutions such as family, church, and voluntary organizations that guide social evolution in decentralized, incremental ways.

Channeling Hayek, among others, Levin writes

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. 

"Reformocons" aren't a movement per se, says Levin, and the group doesn't have a "specific policy agenda" bur rather represents a "disposition."

That said, reform conservatives—a group that includes Ramesh Ponnuru and Reihan Salam of National Review, James Pethokoukis and Frederik Hess of American Enterprise Institute, and others at various right-of-center, Republican-friendly institutions—have already had influence on Republican Party policy proposals.

The widely discussed tax plan put forth earlier this year by Sens. Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, which would expand the child-tax credit and reduce the number of tax brackets, is widely seen as a product of the group's influence. Last summer, reformocons released Room to Grow, an ebook that promises "conservative reforms for a limited government and a thriving middle class." 

In a recent forum organized by Reason's Shikha Dalmia, Levin lays out his vision of reform conservativism and invites libertarians to join in a movement that he says both will reduce the size of government and perform essential functions in a more effective manner.

In a set of spirited responses, The Federalist's Ben Domenech, Cato's Jason Kuznicki, and Reason's Nick Gillespie offer up their own evaluations of the reformocon agenda from a libertarian point of view. As Gillespie writes

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.

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 ofNational 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.

Read the full exchange.