Opinion

Reform conservatives are conservative!

It seems almost too obvious a thing to point out. And yet...

A number of conservative writers have recently made a simple, forceful case: As a matter of politics and policy, the conservative agenda of limited government and a thriving civil society is best advanced by smart conservative proposals to strengthen the middle class.

We call ourselves reformocons. (Not "reformicons"!)

Some writers on the center-right have dismissed the reformocon vision, essentially arguing that anything but a belief in across-the-board top income tax cuts cannot be conservative, and is somehow a sellout to liberalism. The latest to take on the reformocons is Reason Foundation senior analyst and my The Week colleague Shikha Dalmia, who calls reform conservatism a "triumph of liberalism."

Take a signature issue of reform conservatives: expanding the child tax credit. Some conservatives dismiss this as "social engineering." To her credit, Dalmia knows that such a policy would actually be a reversal of social engineering, since our existing entitlement system imposes a double penalty on parents, who pay for the future twice, first by paying into entitlement programs and then by begetting the people whose work will actually finance those programs. But that doesn't stop Dalmia from dinging the reformocon plan to expand the child tax credit.

This may sound reasonable on its face. But it is a giant exercise in cost shifting that does nothing to actually scale back the welfare state. In fact, it deliberately leaves the welfare state intact so as to coopt it for conservative ends. [Dalmia]

Most conservatives and libertarians agree that capital gains should receive preferential tax treatment because doing so encourages investment, which leads to increased productivity and growth. The child tax credit is merely a recognition that having children is also an investment in capital — human capital — one which is ultimately the most important kind of investment. As the great libertarian economist Julian Simon put it, people are the ultimate resource.

Does expanding the child tax credit mean conservatives are allowing liberalism to triumph, or entering into a "bidding war" with liberals that they can only lose? This is a legitimate concern in theory, but historically it is unfounded. As Ramesh Ponnuru points out, the authors of the Contract with America included a child tax credit with their plan, and passed it. No Democratic bidding war followed. And philosophically, reformocons are hardly abandoning conservatism with this policy.

Consider another example: the EITC, by most measures the most successful anti-poverty program in many generations (with welfare reform a close second). Reformocon plans for expanding the EITC (which was a key part of Reaganomics) and/or reforming it to replace it with wage subsidies or payroll tax cuts is an expansion of Reagan's movement. Making work pay for everyone, not just the upper class, is the point of Reaganomics. This is hardly liberalism.

Another example: The mortgage tax deduction is a giant government subsidy. Reformocons want to reduce or eliminate these tax breaks. This is entirely in keeping with conservative principles.

If the reformocon agenda represents the triumph of liberalism, then by that standard, every Republican administration since Coolidge has been a triumph of liberalism." Reagan's call for "a government that rides with us, not on our backs" was a call for more limited government, absolutely, but not for the nightwatchman state.

Some right-of-center writers grasp that nettle, and argue that the job of conservatives is to push for a return to the state of affairs under Coolidge, or even McKinley. I'd be lying if I said there isn't a part of me that is attracted to that. But at the end of the day, there are still elections every four years, and the country will still be better off with a Republican Party and a conservative agenda that can actually govern the country. The problem with this sort of rhetoric is not its intent, it's the fact that once you get Republican control of government, after you realize that Coolidgetopia will never pass, you just end up with conservative people who badly govern the liberal welfare state. And that, in turn, just causes frustrated Americans to vote the GOP out. And the long march of ever-expanding government continues.

Coolidgetopia would not get us to what conservatives actually want, which is not a dog eat dog world, but a world with a thriving civil society, where the culture celebrates the creative destruction of the market because the consequences of that destruction are softened by private institutions and local government, with the federal government acting as an enabler of those institutions, not their emperor as today.

That is actually a more ambitious vision than either Coolidgetopia or Bushtopia (which is simply a rejiggering at the margins of the liberal welfare state). It represents the only credible possibility of a triumph of true conservatism — a triumph that will only be possible once the realities of the 21st century are grasped.

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