Issues analysis
The argument conservatives must learn to make
Patrick Garry, RenewAmerica analyst
October 25, 2012

In other elections, with an incumbent in the position now occupied by President Obama, the challenger would be polling much better than Governor Romney is. With the economy stalled, unemployment at unacceptable levels, government debt both unprecedented and unsustainable, foreign violence against America escalating, and the administration's signature legislative program strikingly unpopular, it is surprising that President Obama is as strong in the polls as he is.

The attack on conservatism

One of President Obama's most effective campaign strategies has been to attack Governor Romney, the Republican Party, and conservatism in general as indifferent to the poor and middle-class and concerned only with the wealthy. The public's apparent receptivity to these attacks demonstrates how susceptible conservatism is to them. Indeed, ever since the Great Depression and the Hoover presidency, conservatism has been susceptible to the image of special protector of the rich and powerful.

As I argue in my book Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged, the conservative ideology and its policy prescriptions provide the best answer to the needs of the poor and working American. But the myth prevailing since the New Deal, and perpetuated by the Left, casts conservatism as indifferent, if not hostile, to anyone but the wealthy. And the entrenchment of this myth has made conservatives hesitant or even afraid to openly challenge it.

This hesitancy can be seen in how conservatives respond to the increased government spending and taxing schemes of the Obama presidency. The response seems to be primarily one-sided: decrying the negative effect of these schemes on job-creators and on the rewarding of success. But there is another argument that conservatives must learn to make and internalize — an argument that can cure a perceived glaring weakness of contemporary conservatism.

The Left uses its advocacy of big and ever-increasing government as a proxy for its support of the common person. By advocating higher taxes and higher budget deficits, the Left claims to be in touch with American "values." By defending higher salaries for teachers' unions, the Left proclaims the achievement of the aims of education, when in fact all that is accomplished is an expansion of government. (Indeed, since 1992, spending on public education has grown an inflation-adjusted 35%, with no perceptible results.) And by declining to do anything about a Social Security system spiraling toward bankruptcy, the Left pronounces its commitment to the well-being of the elderly. In other words, at the prompting of the Left, big government has become equated with the interests of everyone but the rich and powerful. At the same time, the principle of limited government is seen as hostile to the needs of the working and middle classes.

The challenge to conservatives is to show how limited government is in the best interests of all Americans — to show how expansive government in fact hurts the working and middle classes. Some conservative voices have begun forcefully arguing that conservatism has to be more assertive in proclaiming how it can improve the lives of the poor. This is an argument and debate that conservatives have been shying away from ever since the 1930s. However, it is a debate on which conservatives must prevail if they are to present a credible governing philosophy in the decades ahead.

The conservative argument on limited government

Big government is the result and tool of powerful political forces, and the poor and working class are not such forces. Big government is an invitation for the politically stronger elements of society to dictate and control in increasing ways the politically weaker elements. But big government is an inherent contradiction in the liberal argument. On one hand, the Left argues that because the poor are politically powerless, they will be oppressed in society. Yet on the other hand, the Left claims that big government, the epitome of political power, will somehow look out for the real interests of the politically weak.

This contradiction is tangibly revealed in all the ways that big government programs aimed at uplifting the poor get hijacked by the interests of more powerful groups in society or by government itself. A recent Congressional Budget Office study, for instance, revealed that over the past thirty years, the share of government transfer payments going to the poor has declined from 50 percent to 30 percent.

Big government doesn't respond to little people or little interests; it responds to big entities and big interests. This is why big business and big labor embrace big government. The big pharmaceutical companies supported Obamacare after receiving protection from competition from reimported drugs and generics. Big banks went along with Dodd-Frank because it gave them a regulatory advantage over their smaller competitors and enshrined their status as "too big to fail." Indeed, Dodd-Frank has led to increased fees that are especially burdensome on the poor and to bank closings in lower income areas.

Big government as hurtful to the poor

A prime example of how big government can hurt the poor can be found in the legacy of the Great Society urban housing projects, which ruined countless lives by concentrating single-parent families, defenseless elderly, and susceptible children into high-rise slums terrorized by gangs and drug dealers.

All that the poor and working class have is their work; they have no big political power. And therefore, to build a society that funnels government benefits to designated statuses and that doesn't foster and reward individual work is to disadvantage poor and working people. To expand the government sector at the expense of the private sector is to diminish the economic opportunities for the kind of work that can advance the individual beyond her current class or position. To expand the public sector at the expense of the diverse variety of non-public institutions like religious organizations and private social welfare associations is to deprive the poor of those cultural benefactors that are most successful in empowering them to rise above the status into which government programs often confine them.

Throughout history, the poor have been helped more by compassion, fraternity, and charity in society than by government programs designed by centralized bureaucrats. They have been helped more by learning the values of initiative and thrift and responsibility than by highly-regulated government agencies. But the more government takes over functions that might otherwise be undertaken by the private sector, the more government crowds out all the mediating institutions that provide a flexible, customized cushion between individuals and the rigidly bureaucratic realm of government.

Big government as a tool of the powerful

The growth of government seems to be the real objective and concern of liberals, whereas to conservatives, the real goal and concern is the growth of individual freedom and opportunity, which in fact may be dampened by an overly-intrusive role of government.

The enormous size and scope of the state can gravely threaten the space for private social life that is most responsive to the individual needs of the poor. Having given America its unique identity, this flourishing private-sector common life has been comprised of countless civic, religious, fraternal, and charitable entities performing an indescribable array of functions focused on the needs of their particular constituencies. But an overly-expansive government can corrode and corrupt these social groups and institutions.

As government expands its power and activities, the less politically powerful individuals become more vulnerable, since they cannot rely on that web of private intermediary institutions. For instance, through Obamacare, the government can control the lives of ordinary Americans in ways it never could before, and this control will most affect the least powerful individuals. The government can prohibit, with very narrow exceptions, the purchase and sale of any insurance plan that doesn't offer free birth control and sterilization, as if those are the primary health concern of the average person. Obamacare will raise annual healthcare premiums by thousands of dollars per family for policies purchased on the open market and will siphon $716 billion from Medicare. It will cut Medicare reimbursement rates to the point of jeopardizing the supply of services to seniors. It will push employers to dump their employees into Obamacare's insurance exchanges, at a huge cost to taxpayers. It will impose regulations so onerous that the IRS estimates that compliance will require 79 million work hours, with most of that burden falling on small business.

As with most big and expensive government programs, Obamacare will not be funded by the rich, because there are not enough rich people to fund it. Moreover, the rich have always found ways to limit their taxes and take advantage of tax deductions and loopholes. Instead, it is the poor and middle-class who will ultimately bear the burden. Indeed, cronyism is built into Obamacare. Whereas the well-connected can receive waivers from Obamacare's mandates (the HHS has already granted more than 1200 waivers), everyone else without sufficient political power will be compelled to comply.

Big government as corrosive to society

A big-government society is a society geared toward the status quo, since government's focus is on status, not on dynamics. But the poor and immigrant don't want to be entrenched in a particular status. It's the rich who want the status quo, since the rich have already achieved the status into which they'd like to be entrenched. The immigrant doesn't come to America so as to have government insure her a particular status; she comes for the freedom and opportunity to create whatever life she wants for herself.

The poor and immigrant should have the same freedom as the rich. They should be free to live in an opportunity society that gives them the chance to reach whatever heights they dream of. But a government-dominated society tends to capture the poor and immigrant in a dependency culture. Consider, for instance, the food stamp program. Although the percentage of Americans living below the official poverty line has increased by twenty-five percent since 2002, spending on food assistance has grown 400 percent. Thus, even when the economy recovers and unemployment falls, food stamp benefits will not decline proportionally. The program has become more of a permanent entitlement than a temporary stop-gap for the temporarily unemployed. Indeed, the states get bonuses for enrolling more people in the program, not for helping them get off it. The federal government spends about $50 million a year rewarding states for increasing enrollment — an amount that doesn't even have to be used for administering the program.

As a further sign of how individual opportunity and initiative are being dampened by an expanding government, economist Scott Shane of Case Western Reserve University shows that the percentage of laid-off workers seeking to start their own businesses fell by almost two-thirds between 2007 and 2010, which may be no surprise given the increasing regulatory complexity facing small businesses. Indeed, it is not surprising that in a government-dominated society, it is increasingly difficult for the less powerful to become independent of government.

One conservative response to needs of the poor

In contrast, conservatism helps the poor by supporting a culture conducive to success and independence. As much social evidence shows, the best indicators of a happy and successful life are cultural, such as a stable family, a safe and secure community, and individual discipline and work ethic. The bottom economic fifth of society are not stuck there because their welfare payments are inadequate; it is because government programs that are focused on increasing the number of beneficiaries have encouraged just the sort of cultural traits — family dissolution, community fragmentation, and governmental dependency — that are destructive of independent, prosperous lives.

A 2009 Brookings Institution study bolsters this conclusion about the connection between cultural factors and poverty. According to the study, a person need do only three things to have a less than two percent chance of falling into poverty: graduate from high school, obtain a full-time job, and get married before having children.

In many respects, the Left has long since abandoned the working and middle class. As AFL-CIO President George Meany described the 1972 Democratic National Convention, there were no steelworkers, no pipe fitters, and no plumbers in attendance. Instead, the Convention was dominated by political dissidents and radicals seeking a transformation of American culture. But this transformation has not worked well for the poor, as Charles Murray demonstrates in Coming Apart. Murray reveals how, just as liberals over the past half-century have been trying to effectuate an economic redistribution toward the poor, they were simultaneously waging a cultural and moral redistribution away from the poor, with the result that the poor now live lives of dysfunction and chaos, while the cultural elite continue to live in accordance with the traditional values of marriage, family, self-discipline, education, and thrift.

This cultural redistribution has been opposed by conservatives because it is destructive to the poor. In the same way and for the same reason, conservatives have opposed the dramatic drift toward bigger and more socially-suffocating government. The challenge ahead for conservatives is to make their advocacy for poor and struggling Americans a prominent feature of their political identity.

© Patrick Garry

RenewAmerica analyst Patrick Garry also writes a column for RenewAmerica.


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31