Ring out the old, ring in the new. 2010 was a great year for conservatives, as this center-right nation lurched away from a left-liberal central government. But what about the future? What really is our vision; what do we want to accomplish for America and what do we want America to become?
Here are some basic ideas for raising our game.
- No more Moral Equivalent of War. Way back, a century ago, philosopher William James proposed to replace war (which, in 1906, seemed on its way out) with the Moral Equivalent of War to inspire the youth of the world with high purpose. It sounds like a wonderful idea until you start to think about it. If you are going to rally the youth of America to some great political project, and you screw them up to a moral-equivalent-of-war fever, then you are bound to set up a moral equation: good vs. evil, us vs. them, inclusion vs. exclusion. At least, in the old days of the nation state, the us vs. them was Americans vs. the rest of the world. But when you do the moral equivalent of war instead of real war, you end up dividing America; you end up with the moral equivalent of civil war. Thus, people that oppose the war on poverty are mean-spirited; the people that oppose civil-right legislation are racists; the people that oppose saving the planet are deniers. Conservatives believe in something higher than the moral equivalent of civil war.
- Yes, there is a free lunch. When Milton Friedman and other economists railed that "there is no such thing as a free lunch," they were opposing the typical welfare state politics that takes money from Peter to give Paul a free lunch. Paul's lunch ain't free, chaps. Peter paid for it. But, as Deirdre McCloskey writes, again and again, there really is a free lunch, Virginia. It is the free lunch we have gotten from a bourgoisie, innovative and free. Today, food costs less than 10 percent of income, against 80 percent in 1800. We have tons of clothing, rather than one suit of clothes for work, and one for Sunday. Life expectancy at birth is 80 instead of 30. And it takes 10 hours to travel from London to Seattle instead of 10,000 hours. If that isn't a free lunch, I don't know what is.
- The difference between state and society. Scratch a liberal and when they talk about the needs of society they are talking about government programs. Surely, we can understand that the only thing the government can do is declare war and break things, or take money from Peter to pay Paul. But the whole point of society, of social cooperation, is what goes on between consenting adults outside the cockpit of force. We conservatives long for a society in which force, government force, is constantly being pruned back, instead of luxuriantly growing, year on year.
- The war on the poor. A century ago, you could say that something had to be done about the poor suffering in squalid slums. In fact, of course, they were doing much better than a century before, at least in the developing West. So now we have showered material goods on the poor so that the poor are fat and the rich are thin. But in doing so, we have demolished the culture of the poor. Their families are reduced to mother and children; their work culture has been ruined by government welfare, and their authentic institutions, the benefit club, the labor union, the ethnic association, have been bombed out of all recognition. Liberals did this, and they need to understand that their cruel, corrupt, unjust, wasteful, and deluded government programs are the bombers that devastated the poor.
- The Greater Separation of Powers. Our American founders gave us a government of three branches. They created this divided government as a defense in depth against political power. But now we need to go further, to construct a new bastion against power. We need to extend the idea of the separation of church and state into a separation of the political sector and the moral/cultural sector. Liberals have a meme that describes what we must avoid: "legislating morality." Yet they do it all the time, writing criminal laws to criminalize behavior they regard as immoral or unethical. Let conservatives counter with a new meme: "Don't criminalize immorality." We've got to find ways for naming and shaming bad behavior rather than criminalizing it. We also need to separation economy and state. The last 100 years is a story of the exploitation of the economic sector by the political sector, and it stinks. Money is worth 1-2 percent of its value a century ago, and politicians plunder the economic sector at will. This must end. The economic sector needs clear signposts and rules; it cannot thrive in a thicket of activist-inspired regulation.
Conservatives have one great near-term goal, the repeal of ObamaCare. That's great, but then what? In Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) we have a champion of spending restraint, as he cuts waste and shames the bureaucrats that repose on their sinecures. But you can't change America just by pruning and cutting. You've got to have a vision of the future. And we know, after the century of Big Government, that the great social needs of humans just don't get met by the liberal culture of compulsion.