Conservatives and the Trap of “Liberalism Lite”

Recent electoral tides have brought conservatives to the fore—again. The last time this happened, in 1994, the overall effect of a “conservative revolution” was precisely . . . nil. Today the country is still lurching toward big government. Unless a new approach is adopted, the conservative surge in the 2010 election is likely to yield the same empty result.

Liberals operate on the assumption that government is the nation’s only problem-solving institution. They believe that if children aren’t learning in school, or food isn’t nutritious enough, or people are homeless, or workers can’t find jobs, only government can address the problem. Many conservatives tacitly accept this perspective and this traps them into endorsing big government.

Here’s a simple illustration of how the trap operates. A conservative legislator is being interviewed about a government program. The candidate describes the waste and poor management, he deplores the burden the program places on taxpayers, and he points to its harmful side effects.

The reporter follows up: “You say that the current program is flawed. Are you saying we shouldn’t do anything about the problem?”

That question usually produces an unraveling of the conservative’s position. If he says government shouldn’t act at all, he appears insensitive, unhelpful, and unimaginative. The reporter will say, “Are you just going to sit by and let people. . . (starve, go unemployed, eat tainted food, lose their homes, use unsafe drugs, etc.)?” To avoid being cast in this negative position, the legislator is tempted to agree that there needs to be a government program, but that it should be scaled back in certain ways. If, let’s say, the administration has proposed spending $800 million on early childhood education, the conservative says it should be $600 million. This practice of echoing left-wing proposals in slightly weaker form—“liberalism lite”—is self-defeating. Conservatives come off looking negative, stingy and heartless—while acceding to the expansion of government.

Conservatives can avoid this pitfall. To understand how, we need to go back to the reporter’s question: “Are you saying we shouldn’t do anything about the problem?”

That question contains embedded within it the assumption that only government can address community problems. This is an extremely seductive belief, one that has, for more than a century, driven the growth of government. Faced with some pressing social or economic problem, politicians, commentators, and intellectuals assume that only government can deal with it.

This is an illusion—a false belief—because for every social problem you can think of there is a second problem-solving system available. This alternative system is the sum of individuals, families, groups, and businesses working independently to make the world around them a better place. We can call this system the private sector, or the voluntary sphere, or civil society, or, simply, society.

Refocusing the Political Debate

Conservatives can avoid the trap of liberalism lite by focusing on the voluntary sphere, and showing how government hampers its efforts. To illustrate, let’s go back to the interview and assume that the subject under discussion is early childhood education. The reporter asks, “You say that government’s programs are flawed. Are you saying we shouldn’t do anything to help children get a good start in life?”

“Of course not,” replies the legislator. “We have a great responsibility in this area, and it is one that thousands of individuals, groups, and businesses in my district have accepted. We have, for example, the Sunshine Center, run by Marjorie Davis, who has been studying early childhood education for 26 years, and written several books about it. She and her business partner teach 16 children in her remodeled garage. She has them reading at the second grade level, in kindergarten!”

Reporter: “But doesn’t that school charge the parents?”

“Yes, she charges a modest amount, which parents are happy to pay. We also have charitably funded schools. There’s one at the Episcopal Church, another one supported by a group that calls itself Angels over Smithville. Altogether, there are over 600 businesses, non-profits, churches, and volunteer groups involved in early childhood education in my district—and that doesn’t count what parents, grandparents, and neighbors do every day to help the development of young children.”

Reporter: “What can government do to help this sector?”

“When I talk to these providers, what they are saying to me is that government regulation is their biggest burden. For example, their tax compliance and reporting burdens are huge. Marjorie says she’s almost at the point where she will have to hire a bookkeeper, but then that cost would have to be passed on to the parents. As it is now, government is practically making war against providers of early childhood education with all its regulations. When I go back to Washington, I’m going to try to get those tax reporting requirements reduced.”

Reporter: “Maybe government grants would help, don’t you think?”

“But where would government get the money to pay for the grants? Its taxes would just take money away from Marjorie and all the other owners and workers in the day care industry. And taxation takes money away from parents, making it more difficult for them to afford day care. Does that make any sense?”

Reporter: “Maybe government could tax just wealthy people?”

“Let me tell you about wealthy people. You know that Episcopal scholarship program I mentioned. Last year, that program received a donation of $50,000 from a very generous person in my district—I won’t mention her name because it would embarrass her. Now, does it make any sense for government to tax her money away, and cycle it through the Treasury, and Congress, and congressional committees, and federal and state early childhood bureaucracies to give some of it to preschools? Does that make sense?”

Reporter: “Uh. . . You make an interesting point.”

As this illustration makes clear, in order to exalt the private sector, you have to know a lot about it. Legislators, and their staffs, need to gather specific examples and compile data, and they cannot do this by staying inside the Beltway and studying reports of government administrators.

Who should deal with pressing national problems? That is the critical question of our age. The left can’t imagine any answer except government. Conservatives have to point out that there is another, healthier problem-solving system, the independent action of family members, friends, neighbors, volunteers, churchgoers, workers, entrepreneurs, inventors, researchers, reporters, teachers, and philanthropists. That perspective gives the conservative a stance to be proud of: “My opponent says the solution to this problem is government; I say the solution is the American people.”

James L. Payne is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of Lytton Research and Analysis.
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