It's good to learn from experience, but better to learn from other people's experiences. That old saying resonates in the mind of a North American visitor to this week's British Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, England.
Or, anyway, it resonated in the mind of this particular North American visitor. Most of my Republican friends dismiss today's British Conservatives as weak-willed squishes, their morale crushed by 13 years of defeat. The British Conservatives' repeated invocations of "fairness" and "equality" grate on the ears of many Republicans. Conservative championing of the National Health Service, of environmentalism, and of cultural tolerance seems alien at best, deeply unprincipled at worst.
But now hear this: The Liberal-Conservative coalition government headed by David Cameron will unveil during the next few weeks a program of budget reduction undreamed of by any Republican administration since Ronald Reagan's in 1981, and very likely more radical even than that.
The Liberal-Conservative coalition is delivering these draconian budget cuts just as resurgent congressional Republicans have released a "Pledge to America" making it clear that they will oppose any spending cuts to approximately 80 percent of the U.S. federal budget. And England's dramatic retrenching is happening just as the most supposedly libertarian candidate in the race, Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, has released a new television ad renouncing his previous support for higher deductibles in Medicare.
Who's the squish?
Republicans are trapped between their ideology (which celebrates limited government in the abstract) and their voting base (which depends heavily on Social Security and Medicare). When push comes to shove, the voting base wins.
The British Conservatives resolved this problem by expanding their voting base: reaching out to younger voters, better-educated voters, urban voters. Precisely because of their willingness to adapt to those voters' cultural concerns, they were able to win those voters' support for their economic program.
Voters do not trust fanatics. They may recognize that something uncomfortable must be done, but (as my friend Andrew Coyne jokes) they do not want it to be done by people who enjoy it.
They want to be assured that things are being done for practical rather than ideological reasons. And, especially when it's time for retrenchment, a government that has established its compassionate bona fides will discover it has more scope to act than a government that shrugs off social concerns.
It's not just about positioning and appearances either.
The fact is, radical budget reductions — however necessary, however desirable — do have tough real-world consequences. Thinking about those consequences is essential to policymaking in the broad national interest.
Example: Britain is a lightly policed society experiencing troubling public disorder. The Labor government responded by creating auxiliary police deployed in some inner-city areas. The round of spending cuts contained in the coalition government's first Emergency Budget has called these auxiliary police programs into question. I spent the afternoon Wednesday talking to Muslim community leaders in a low-income, ethnically mixed area of Birmingham. For them, the possible loss of auxiliary police was their single biggest concern.
That concern may have to yield to the greater good. But it should be thought of. And the more libertarian a government's aspirations, the more it must consider those kinds of concerns if it is to govern well.
Slate's Dave Weigel published a piece on Tuesday asking what relevance, if any, is still attached to the work of reform conservatives like Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, David Brooks, and myself now that Republicans are on the verge of a major election win. The answer is that election wins are only means to ends: The end is to govern well.
Republicans did not govern as successfully as we would have wished during our last opportunity. Learning from the experience of others might help us to do better next time.