WASHINGTON — One of the main problems with an unremittingly hostile view of government — held by many associated with the tea party, libertarianism and “constitutionalism” — is that it obscures and undermines the social contributions of a truly conservative vision of government.
Politics requires a guiding principle of public action. For popular liberalism, it is often the rule of good intentions: If it sounds good, do it. Social problems can be solved by compassionate, efficient regulation and bureaucratic management — which is seldom efficient and invites unintended consequences in complex, unmanageable systems (say, the one-sixth of the U.S. economy devoted to health care). The signal light for government intervention is stuck on green.
For libertarians and their ideological relatives, the guiding principle is the maximization of individual liberty. It is a theory of government consisting mainly of limits and boundaries. The light is almost always red.
Conservatism (as my co-author Peter Wehner and I explain in our recent National Affairs essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government”) offers a different principle of public action — though a bit more difficult to explain than “go” or “stop.” In the traditional conservative view, individual liberty is ennobled and ordered within social institutions — families, religious communities, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, local governments and nations. The success of individuals is tied to the health of these institutions, which prepare them for the responsible exercise of freedom and the duties of citizenship.
This is a limiting principle: Higher levels of government should show deference to private associations and local institutions. But this is also a guide to appropriate governmental action — needed when local and private institutions are enervated or insufficient in scale to achieve the public good.
So conservatism is a governing vision that allows for a yellow light: careful, measured public interventions to encourage the health of civil society. There are no simple rules here. Some communities — disproportionately affected by family breakdown, community chaos or damaging economic trends — will need more active help. But government should, as the first resort, set the table for private action and private institutions — creating a context in which civil society can flourish.
This goal has moral and cultural implications. Government has a necessary (if limited) role in reinforcing the social norms and expectations that make the work of civic institutions both possible and easier. Some forms of liberty — say, the freedom to destroy oneself with hard drugs or to exploit other men and women in the sex trade — not only degrade human nature but damage and undermine families and communities and ultimately deprive the nation of competent, self-governing citizens. (The principle applies, more mildly, to softer drugs. By what governing theory did the citizens of Colorado — surveying the challenges of global economic competition, educational mediocrity and unhealthy lifestyles — decide that the answer is the proliferation of stoners?)
But conservatives also need to take seriously the economic implications of this governing vision. Just as citizens must be prepared for the exercise of liberty, individuals must be given the skills and values — human capital — that will allow them to succeed in a free economy.
This is the essence of equal opportunity. But it is not a natural social condition. And many conservatives have failed to recognize the extent to which this defining American promise has been hollowed out.
Economic mobility is stalled for many poorer Americans, resulting in persistent, intergenerational inequality. This problem is more complex than an income gap. It involves wide disparities in parental time and investment, in community involvement and in academic accomplishment. These are traceable to a number of factors that defy easy ideological categorization, including the collapse of working-class families and the flight of decent blue-collar jobs.
Where are the creative conservative policy ideas to strengthen civil society and private enterprise in places where the playing field of equal opportunity is scandalously tilted? The project is not unprecedented. In the 1990s, a cadre of conservative reformers achieved success against three seemingly intractable problems: welfare dependency, drug use and violent crime.
This history highlights the current conservative divide. Many in the tea party and libertarian wings, if left to their own devices, would say almost nothing about these matters. Yet a number of Republican governors and members of Congress — see recent efforts by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — promise a more constructive spirit of governance.
The appeal of conservatism as a governing vision now depends on the transformation of this nascent effort into a movement that is strong enough to redefine a party.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.