DANIEL VAUGHAN: The state can’t build a society: A response to Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, wrote a column last week entitled, “A Defining Statement of Modern Conservatism,” which took a look back at the now-legendary 1964 speech Ronald Reagan gave in support Barry Goldwater, “A Time for Choosing.”

Lowry’s column praises Reagan, but says there are “weaknesses of the speech in retrospect” that “point to areas where conservatives should reexamine their assumptions or freshen up their agenda and appeal.”

I’m not sure I see the same weaknesses that Lowry sees in the speech as we examine conservativism both during and after the Trump era. Many of the things Reagan believed or observed were right then, and have principled power now even as cultural fight lines shift.

We shouldn’t see those sections as a slight to Reagan, but as a light forward.

I’m going to skip the sections where Lowry agrees with Reagan and jump right into the parts where he says the speech “falls down.”

First, he points out the fiscal conservatism of Reagan, who blasted the nonstop spending and growth by the federal government. Lowry says that fiscal conservatives no longer have the “clout of social conservatives in the GOP coalition,” and that Trump has ushered in a new era of expansionary monetary policy — and a ballooning deficit in the process.

But while that’s true, I don’t see how that means Reagan’s warnings fall; they’re still valid, and we can’t forever spend money like drunken sailors when their payday and shore leave coincide.

Eventually, you have to answer for those choices. And if Republicans aren’t going to hold that fiscal line, who will?

Elizabeth Warren is proposing $52 trillion — a conservative estimate — in new spending. But the entire U.S. budget for 2019 was $4.75 trillion. Someone has to demand honesty on the spending front — if not conservatives, who else?

The next area Lowry points to is the growth of government power. He questions whether the right should view government power as a negative, criticizing the Reaganite argument that “growth of the state…leads to tyranny, and the tipping point is imminent.”

Lowry acknowledges that the growth of the administrative state — the ever-present bureaucratic and technocratic arm of the federal government — has become a net-negative on the United States, and the push to rein that in is good. He points to toxic individualism as the scourge of our time, writing:

[E]ven as the government has grown, so has personal liberty, sometimes in deeply unhealthy ways. We have more choices in family structure (or lack thereof), sexual expression, and consumption of entertainment, from the exalted to the low, including a vast amount and variety of pornography. There is less prescription against aberrant behavior, as can be seen in the streets of our major cities such as San Francisco and New York City. There’s greater leeway to sell and smoke pot. We now enjoy the freedom even — in theory at least — to pick our own gender and have institutions of government afford every consideration to our choice.

Lowry goes on to argue that the “stratum between state and individual, namely, civil society, that does so much to determine not necessarily whether we are rich or free, but whether we are happy” is the culprit here.

But it’s unclear how or what Lowry would prescribe to fix the civil society gap and assuage fears of toxic individualism. We certainly can’t depend on the federal government to institute some form of national identity or civil society on everyone.

An administrative state that sought to implement a civil society from the top down would almost certainly fail. And it would fail for the reasons that Reagan mentioned in his speech, as Lowry quotes: “For three decades, we have sought to solve the problems of unemployment through government planning, and the more the plans fail, the more the planners plan.”

Friedrich Hayek, the esteemed economist and philosopher who Lowry points to as a problem in Reagan’s speech, observed that the economy is made up of “spontaneous, organic processes.” The same is true of culture and society — people’s behavior, and their interactions with others, is directed and constrained by a myriad of social institutions and customs, which create the spontaneous and varied social order in communities across the country.

There’s no way you can create that interaction through public policy — you can only hope to do what you do with capitalism: create the conditions for things to thrive and let things flow. That doesn’t mean there aren’t situations to bring government power in to influence the economy or culture — even I’ve argued for broader use of antitrust laws — but you can’t expect a top-down planned society.

Lowry says we need to work toward revitalizing our culture to reflect the influential culture of the 1960s through ’80s, arguing that “how and whether it can be revitalized needs to be a leading question for conservatives.”

But perhaps the larger question is whether that era is a norm — or an exception. America grew as an unchallenged economy in that era and, as such, was also unmatched on a worldwide cultural impact. The conditions that allowed our largely monolithic society to thrive are no longer present. Further, as I’ve argued in the past, no pre-Trump normalcy is returning.

Reagan pointed upward because he saw conservativism as providing a path forward by relying on the principles that made America great. Meanwhile, the modern populist moment is one that views the past with rose-tinted glasses and wants a return to some mystic past.

Democrats and Republicans both see that past, either economically or culturally, as something to restore, when that’s not possible. Retaining the Reagan spirit means grounding ourselves on principles to guide us into a better future.

The past isn’t returning, but we can establish a better future. That’s what makes Reagan’s speech a timeless classic. It hasn’t fallen down. We have, though.

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