Former speechwriter for President Bush Michael Gerson wrote in his Newsweek column this week about a “Republican identity crisis.” In this piece, Gerson attacks conservatives in the following manner:
My low point with the Republican Party came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In attempting to deliver benefits to victims, the administration found men and women who had never had a bank account; families entirely disconnected from the mainstream economy. A problem rooted in generations of governmentally enforced oppression—slavery and segregation—demanded an active response from government to encourage economic empowerment and social mobility.
Yet the response of many Republicans was to use the disaster as an excuse for cutting government spending, particularly the Medicare prescription-drug benefit for seniors. At a post-Katrina meeting with White House officials, one conservative think-tank sage urged: “The president needs to give up something he wants. Why not the AIDS program for Africa?”
This reaction previews a broader, high-stakes Republican debate as we head toward the 2008 election. One Republican Party—the Republican Party of movement conservatives on Capitol Hill and in the think-tank world—will argue that the “big government Republicanism” of the Bush era has been a reason for recent defeats. Like all fundamentalists, the antigovernment conservatives preach that greater influence requires a return to purity—the purity of Reaganism.
But the golden age of austerity under Reagan is a myth. During the Reagan years, big government got bigger, with federal spending reaching 23.5 percent of GDP (compared with just over 20 percent under the current president). But the Reagan reality is more admirable than the myth. He wisely chose what was historically necessary—large defense increases and tax reductions—over what was politically unachievable: a massive rollback of government.
As antigovernment conservatives seek to purify the Republican Party, it is reasonable to ask if the purest among them are conservatives at all. The combination of disdain for government, a reflexive preference for markets and an unbalanced emphasis on individual choice is usually called libertarianism. The old conservatives had some concerns about that creed, which Russell Kirk called “an ideology of universal selfishness.” Conservatives have generally taught that the health of society is determined by the health of institutions: families, neighborhoods, schools, congregations. Unfettered individualism can loosen those bonds, while government can act to strengthen them. By this standard, good public policies—from incentives to charitable giving, to imposing minimal standards on inner-city schools—are not apostasy; they are a thoroughly orthodox, conservative commitment to the common good.
A good friend of mine emailed me his reaction to Gerson’s piece which I think worth posting:
In a nutshell, Gerson asserts that Reagan wasn’t really a small government conservative, and that greater government intervention is necessary to help those in need.I respect Gerson’s abilities immensely, but his inclination towards bigger government is misguided and wrong. I’m surprised that Gerson, an incredibly well-read theological scholar and evangelical, is not more familiar with the writings of C.S. Lewis, who insistently cautioned against faith in the concept of an omnicompetent government.
In his essay “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State” Lewis writes:
We have on the one hand a desperate need; hunger, sickness and the dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it; omnicompetent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement? This is how it has entered before; a desperate need (real or apparent) in the one party, a power (real or apparent) to relieve it, in the other. In the ancient world individuals have sold themselves as slaves in order to eat. So in society. Here is a witch-doctor who can save us from the sorcerers — a war-lord who can save us from the barbarians — a Church who can save us from Hell. Give them what they ask, give ourselves to them bound and blindfold, if only they will! Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again. We cannot blame men for making it. We can hardly wish them not to. Yet we can hardly bear that they should.
Gerson asks in his column, “What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing.” That is an incredibly depressing assertion to be made by someone so astute. I have no doubt about Gerson’s intentions, his sincerity, or his desire to help those in need. What is so sad about his statement is that it conveys a complete lack of faith in any compassionate individual to offer assistance to those in need without a nudge from government.
The question that Gerson needs to ask himself is this: “Over the last 50 years, what has big government given to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare?” The answer? Nothing but dependence, incompetence, and injustice.
Former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told The New Yorker earlier this year that Gerson was “a C.S. Lewis type”. If only it were so.