All you need is love: How community can save conservatism

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Article Highlights

  • Many on the right correctly emphasize individual liberty, but they do not emphasize what conservatism knows to be true: It is in community that people learn how to be free.

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  • Proceeding with a spirit of community would help conservatives formulate and support better policies.

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  • The party of community might have better luck at the ballot box than the modern-day GOP. It might make the United States a better place, too.

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The right's rhetoric is all about individual liberty, but love of fellow humans is essential to a functioning society -- or policy.

In May, Rep. Paul Ryan gave a speech at an American Enterprise Institute dinner, where I work, titled "Conservatism and Community." Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, spoke of the inherent human need for community. "We want everyone to have a chance in life -- a chance to be happy," he argued. "And we're happiest when we're together. We want to be together. It's in our nature. We feel it in our bones." People "hunger for a community -- where they realize their potential."

The vision Ryan offered is appealing, and conservatives should listen to it.

Conservatism, properly understood, has long championed the essential role played by the mediating institutions of civil society -- Edmund Burke's "little platoons" -- the churches, the schools, the men's and women's clubs, soup kitchens, scout troops, youth sports leagues, and neighborhood associations. It is here that we learn how to interact with each other. It is here that a healthy dependence of mutual obligation is formed. It is here -- enmeshed in a layered, vibrant web of social interactions and commitments -- that manners are learned, habits of virtue are cultivated, tradition is discovered and appreciated, and young people are taught who they are and how to live.

Many on the right correctly emphasize individual liberty, but they do not emphasize what conservatism knows to be true: It is in community that people learn how to be free.

Ryan argued that "the federal government has a role to play" with respect to community, but that "it's a supporting role, not the leading one." This is generally true. Government should distance itself enough from the individual that civil society -- which exists in the space between government and citizen -- can flourish. Speaking generally, government should help support these institutions, but it should not do their work for them.

But this is not to say that a communitarian ethic should be absent from politics and public policy -- quite the opposite. Proceeding with a spirit of community would help conservatives formulate and support better policies. Let's discuss a few.

The most obvious and immediate need for a spirit of community in the public-policy space is in the labor market. We still have two million fewer jobs than when the official "recovery" from the Great Recession began. More than four million of our fellow citizens have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer.

Although our labor-market crisis is often discussed in economic terms (if at all), it truly represents a human tragedy. It constitutes millions and millions of workers who are unable to flourish, to earn their own success, to realize their full potential.

A public policy animated by a spirit of community would assign top priority to helping put Americans back to work by reforming the unemployment-insurance system to include relocation vouchers for unemployed workers who need to move in order to find a job and lump-sum bonuses for finding jobs, further delaying Obamacare's employer mandate beyond 2015 if the labor market continues to recover at a slow pace, encouraging high-skill immigrants to come to America and create jobs, encouraging domestic energy production, and getting the government off the backs of aspiring entrepreneurs by reducing occupational licensing requirements and regulatory burdens.

The disappearance of traditional middle-class jobs -- a consequence of technological advancements in automating processes, to a large degree, and of outsourcing -- represents the biggest challenge to American workers since the mass of workers left the farm for the factory. Any solution will involve better education for all Americans, so conservatism motivated by a spirit of community would put education reform at the top of its agenda. That would include embracing school choice, making it easier for local communities to start charter schools, tailoring curriculum to meet the needs of an automated economy, holding schools and teachers to performance metrics, weakening the power of teachers' unions, and pushing for a longer school year -- 180 days is too short a school year for a 21st-century education.

The right should not be afraid to attack corporate cronyism. Capitalism is a profit and loss system -- we should not continue to privatize the gains and socialize the losses of systemically or politically or symbolically important corporations. Those concerned about society and community should immediately see this and use government power to ensure society isn't on the hook for bailing out corporations.

Burke observed that society properly understood is a covenant between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. But the current tax code is biased against saving and toward consumption, because dollars saved are taxed more than once, whereas dollars spent on consumption are only taxed once.

I am free to earn money today, pay taxes, take my after-tax income to Vegas, and spend all of it on gambling, liquor, and women. I am also free to earn money today, pay taxes, save my after-tax income, and spend it in the future. The former increases my utility today; the latter helps our children and grandchildren enjoy a higher standard of living and build a more dynamic, growing economy tomorrow. Savings is just another word for investments, and we know investment is crucial to future economic growth. We owe it to the next generation to leave them a large capital stock so that they too can enjoy robust growth and higher wages. The tax code should encourage that.

America's prisons are expensive, prisoners are often less capable of living in society after being incarcerated than before, and prison rape is a pressing human-rights issue. America's prisons are a serious social problem, and conservatism animated by a spirit of community would set about to fixing them. Richard Viguerie recently argued persuasively in the New York Times that prison reform lies "at the core of conservative philosophy." Conservatives should recognize this and champion reform.

The biggest ongoing problem facing society is likely the disintegration of the family. Families are the primary transmitters of social capital and play a paramount role in the formation of human capital. While it is true that the government's ability to influence family formation is certainly limited, it is not zero. Best that that influence be encouraging. In addition, today's children pay for tomorrow's welfare state, so the choice to have children has important social consequences. My AEI colleague Ramesh Ponnuru has championed an enlarged child tax credit as a way of recognizing "that raising children is a contribution to the old-age programs just as taxes are." This is an idea worthy of serious consideration, and its merit is easier to see with a communitarian perspective.

Projected federal entitlement is a major concern in the coming decades. The structure of Social Security and Medicare must be changed to avert crushing taxes or crushing debt -- or both. While it is true that debt and budget deficits over the next 10 years are projected to be relatively stable, it remains the case that these programs need serious reforms to avoid projected imbalances in the years beyond 2023. Even if the projections turn out to be wrong -- which could happen -- the severity of the projected imbalance is such that prudence requires quick action. We can't afford to wait to see if the projections turn out to be incorrect.

Concern for community itself motivates reducing entitlement spending relative to current policy. In the worst-case scenario, a true fiscal crisis would hit the most vulnerable members of society the hardest by suddenly shredding the safety net. Appropriately reforming entitlement programs helps them -- reforming entitlements is helping the poor.

When undertaking fiscal consolidation, those worried primarily about the size of the federal government would both cut entitlement spending and cut taxes for high-income earners; both make government smaller. But a spirit of community suggests a different choice: shared sacrifice and a recognition that all Americans -- the poor, the rich, and, yes, even the middle class -- must bear the burden together of reorganizing unsustainable entitlement programs and reducing the federal government's projected spending and deficits.

These solutions should include what the Catholic Church calls a preferential option for the poor -- a recognition that society, including government, has a special responsibility to care for the least among us. They should recognize that tomorrow's middle-class seniors will have to live with less generous government-funded healthcare than today's enjoy. And they should recognize that the rich will have to continue paying a large share of their income in taxes.

But more than that, these solutions should make society more virtuous and empower individuals. They should encourage older workers who can still work to do so, well past their 65th birthdays. They should encourage Americans to take more responsibility for their income and medical care in their retirement years -- to encourage what George W. Bush called an ownership society.

And they should make society more virtuous by consciously setting priorities. Does a properly ordered society take large amounts of money away from the middle-aged and services away from the young in order to extend the life of an elderly person a few additional months? Is such a society honoring the social covenant that exists between the generations? It is hard to talk about such sensitive issues, especially with memories of the "death panels" debate fresh in our minds. But conservatives should not be afraid of leading a serious and sober discussion of these delicate issues.

Ryan is correct that government should not aim to replace the mediating institutions of civil society. And government, even in America, has repeatedly shown a tendency to overreach, to make citizens unhealthily dependent, to weaken the fabric of society, and to harm its own citizens -- a tendency which must always be guarded against, vigorously. We need less government in many areas today -- Obamacare and health care generally, corporate cronyism, and regulatory policy, to name a few -- and especially in the coming years, as projected imbalances continue to grow.

But while statism is a serious threat to human flourishing, limited government is not a necessary evil. Limited government has a positive role to play in a properly ordered society. Government can better achieve that role if it is infused with a spirit of community. And conservatives would support better policy if they were less focused on the individual and more focused on community and society.

I was struck that Ryan used the word "love" eight times in his speech. You don't often hear that word used in politics, and almost never in policy. But love -- agape and philia, not eros -- is what we're talking about: the love of friendship, the love of our little platoon; a commitment to each other, to shared sacrifice, to generosity, to generations past and future. A political party dedicated to these principles and employing them in creative public policy might be described as the conservative party. Or perhaps as the party of properly ordered community. The party of community might have better luck at the ballot box than the modern-day GOP. It might make the United States a better place, too.

Michael R. Strain is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

 

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Michael R.
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