20 December 2011

Post-Norquist Conservatism: Higher Taxes, Less Government?

As the Gingrich-Paul-Romney demolition derby in Iowa warns of another meltdown of "movement" conservatism, David Brooks calls our attention in his latest New York Times column to a conservative thinker who actually seems to be looking forward and beyond today's taxophobia. Steven F. Hayward writes for the Breakthrough Journal, where his piece on "Modernizing Conservatism" caught Brooks's attention. In some respects, there's nothing new about Hayward's article. As has been done for nearly sixty years, Hayward asks Republicans to concede that the New Deal welfare state is here to stay. What's different is Hayward's conclusion that the latest right-wing attempt to destroy it, the "starve the beast" strategy of denying funds by lowering taxes, has failed, that despite tax cuts government has continued to grow. The reason for this, he suggests, is that Republicans ever since Ronald Reagan have cut taxes without actually cutting government substantially, preferring to fund programs through borrowing instead of taxation. This was a matter of political pragmatism; Hayward concedes that Reagan would not have been as popular as he was in the Eighties had he actually cut programs as deeply as some Republican ideologues wanted. It was also highly irresponsible, hiding the real cost of entitlement programs from the taxpayer. "[T]he starve-the-beast strategy currently allows Americans to receive a dollar in government services while only having to pay 60 cents for it," he notes. We might expect a Republican to say that the solution is to actually cut the programs -- that seems to be the view of Tea Partiers, for instance. Hayward, however, argues that the only way to control the growth of entitlement spending -- he doesn't really even suggest rolling it back -- is to "Serve the Check," to raise taxes in order to impress upon taxpayers the real cost of entitlement programs. He believes that conservatives and liberals could agree to shield middle-class families from the increase by increasing the per-child tax credit while reducing other deductions for corporations and individuals. Raising taxes is bound to create a backlash, but Hayward expects the end result to be not a rollback of entitlements but an overdue institution of means-testing for many entitlements.

While Hayward's tax proposals are the highlight of his article for Brooks, he goes on to argue for stronger Republican commitment to infrastructure and environmental protection. Hayward exposes what he calls a "non sequitur" of the Right: "the environment has mostly become a cause of the Left, therefore environmental problems are either phony or are not worth considering" While still holding out for "free-market" solutions to environmental problems, he insists primarily that conservatives can't yield a major area of public concern completely to the other side.

Hayward displays a modesty of ambition that seems genuinely conservative, repudiating the ideologue's zeal for total victory and admitting that collaboration and compromise between parties is necessary for government to function effectively. While affirming that "the divisions between Left and Right are fundamental and unbridgeable," and that "Left and Right have conflicting modes of moral reasoning that cannot be easily synthesized or bridged," he regards the following as the more important point.

There are three dominant political facts of our age that conservative thinkers (and also liberals) need to acknowledge. The first is the plain fact that neither ideological camp will ever defeat the other so decisively as to be able to govern without the consent of the other side. This is not merely my political judgment; it is sewn into the nature of America's basic institutions and political culture.

The unbridgeable divisions are the second fact, while the permanence of the "entitlement state" is the third.  Returning to the first point at the end of his essay, Hayward makes his strongest argument for compromise:

Achieving policy compromise and the reconstruction of a "vital center" requires an end to the view of practical politics as a zero-sum game, in which compromise is regarded as a defeat by both sides....Consent does not require surrender. Liberals and conservatives do not agree about the principle of equality in American life and probably never will. Conservatives emphasize equal opportunity while accepting or even celebrating unequal outcomes. Conservatives see nothing inherently unjust about large disparities in the distribution of income or wealth, and also offer practical reasons why unequal rewards make for a more dynamic, creative, and ultimately wealthier society. Liberals strongly prefer more equal results, with many viewing disparities in income or wealth as random (Richard Gephardt once referred to the structure of America's wealth and income distribution as a "lottery"), and, as a result, favor egalitarian policies and entitlement programs. Even so, most liberals are not pure redistributionists, and generally support policies that broaden opportunity for individual advancement, while few conservatives are entirely indifferent to the importance of income mobility and social opportunity....While liberals and conservatives may disagree on the very notion of equality, they can agree on certain points -- for example, that stagnating incomes are problematic -- and can achieve policy agreement in certain key areas.

Hayward closes by addressing the challenge of ideology. "It may be that internal ideological reformation must precede bipartisan political compromise," he writes, hoping that his own call for a conservative reformation will be echoed by a liberal reformation. "[N]either movement has properly adapted to the changing fabric of modern society," he concludes, which is why pragmatic compromise leaves ideologues dissatisfied. Finally, "[B]efore the two camps can agree to an agenda truly in the national interest, liberals and conservatives must first reform themselves." Of course, it may not be necessary to wait. If the national interest is self-evident enough to non-ideologues, voters ought to be able to purge government of unreformed conservatives and liberals. It should not be up to the ideologues themselves to reform, however desirable it'd be for them to do so, if elections allow us to replace them with pragmatists and moderates. If they do not, Hayward may be compelled to reconsider whether partisanship itself, rather than raw ideology, is what Americans need to reform.

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