The Argument Conservatives Must Learn to Make

by Prof. Patrick Garry

In other elections, with an incumbent in the position now occupied by President Obama, the challenger would be polling much better than Governor Romney is.  With the economy stalled, unemployment at unacceptable levels, government debt both unprecedented and unsustainable, foreign violence against America escalating, and the administration’s signature legislative program strikingly unpopular, it is surprising that President Obama is as strong in the polls as he is.

Nicholas Kamm /AFP/Getty Images

One of President Obama’s most effective campaign strategies has been to attack Governor Romney, the Republican Party, and conservatism in general as indifferent to the poor and middle-class and concerned only with the wealthy.  The public’s apparent receptivity to these attacks demonstrates how susceptible conservatism is to them.  Indeed, ever since the Great Depression and the Hoover presidency, conservatism has been susceptible to the image of special protector of the rich and powerful.

As I argue in my book, Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged, that conservative ideology and its policy prescriptions provide the best answer to the needs of the poor and working Americans. But the myth prevailing since the New Deal, and perpetuated by the Left, casts conservatism as indifferent if not hostile to anyone but the wealthy.  And the entrenchment of this myth has made conservatives hesitant or even afraid of openly challenging it.

This hesitancy can be seen in how conservatives respond to the increased government spending and taxing schemes of the Obama presidency.  The response seems to be primarily one-sided: decrying the negative effect of these schemes on job-creators and on rewarding of success.  But there is another argument that conservatives must learn to make and internalize – an argument that can cure a perceived glaring weakness of contemporary conservatism.

The Left uses its advocacy of big and ever-increasing government as a proxy for its support of the common person.  By advocating higher taxes and higher budget deficits, the Left claims to be in touch with American ‘values.’  And by declining to do anything about a Social Security system spiraling toward bankruptcy, the Left pronounces it commitment to the well-being of the elderly.  In other words, at the prompting of the Left, big government has become equated with the interests of everyone but the rich and powerful. At the same time, the principle of limited government is seen as hostile to the needs of the working and middle classes.

The challenge to conservatives is to show how limited government is in the best interests of all Americans – to show how expansive government in fact hurts the working and middle classes.  Some conservative voices, including Matt Cavedon on this site, have begun forcefully arguing that conservatism has to be more assertive in proclaiming how it can improve the lives of the poor. This is an argument and debate that conservatives have been shying away from ever since the 1930s. However, it is a debate on which conservatives must prevail if they are to present a credible governing philosophy in the decades ahead.

Big government is the result and tool of powerful political forces, and the poor and working class are not such forces.  Big government is an invitation for the politically stronger elements of society to dictate and control in increasing ways the politically weaker elements.  But big government is an inherent contradiction in the liberal argument.  On one hand, the Left argues that because the poor are politically powerless they will be oppressed in society.  Yet on the other hand, the Left claims that big government, the epitome of political power, will somehow look out for the real interests of the politically weak.

This contradiction is tangibly revealed in all the ways that big government programs aimed at uplifting the poor get hijacked by the interests of more powerful groups in society or by government itself.  A recent Congressional Budget Office study, for instance, revealed that over the past thirty years, the share of government transfer payments going to the poor has declined from 50 percent to 30 percent.

Big government doesn’t respond to little people or little interests; it responds to big entities and big interests.  This is why big business and big labor embrace big government.  The big pharmaceutical companies supported Obamacare after receiving protection from competition from reimported drugs and generics.  Big banks went along with Dodd-Frank because it gave them a regulatory advantage over their smaller competitors and enshrined their status as “too big to fail.”  Indeed, Dodd-Frank has led to increased fees that are especially burdensome on the poor and to bank closings in lower income areas.

A prime example of how big government can hurt the poor can be found in the legacy of the Great Society urban housing projects, which ruined countless lives by concentrating single-parent families, defenseless elderly, and susceptible children into high-rise slums terrorized by gangs and drug dealers.

To expand the government sector at the expense of the private sector is to diminish the economic opportunities for the kind of work that can advance the individual beyond her current class or position.  To expand the public sector at the expense of the diverse variety of non-public institutions like religious organizations and private social welfare associations is to deprive the poor of those cultural benefactors that are most successful in empowering the poor to rise above the status into which government programs often confine them.  The more government takes over functions that might otherwise be undertaken by the private sector, the more government crowds out all the mediating institutions that provide a flexible, customized cushion between individuals and the rigidly bureaucratic realm of government.

A big-government society is a society geared toward the status quo, since government’s focus is on status, not on dynamics.  But the poor and immigrant don’t want to be entrenched in a particular status.  It’s the rich who want the status quo, since the rich have already achieved the status into which they’d like to be entrenched.  The immigrant doesn’t come to America so as to have government ensure her a particular status; she comes for the freedom and opportunity to create whatever life she wants for herself.

The poor and immigrant should have the same freedom as the rich.  They should be free to live in an opportunity society that gives them the chance to reach whatever heights they dream of.  But a government-dominated society tends to capture the poor and immigrant in a dependency culture.  Consider, for instance, the food stamp program.  Although the percentage of Americans living below the official poverty line has increased by twenty-five percent since 2002, spending on food assistance has grown 400 percent. Thus, even when the economy recovers and unemployment falls, food stamp benefits will not decline proportionally.  The program has become more of a permanent entitlement than a temporary stop-gap for the temporarily unemployed.  Indeed, the states get bonuses for enrolling more people in the program, not for helping them get off it.  The federal government spends about $50 million a year rewarding states for increasing enrollment – an amount that doesn’t even have to be used for administering the program.

As a further sign of how individual opportunity and initiative is being dampened by an expanding government, economist Scott Shane of Case Western Reserve University shows that the percentage of laid-off workers seeking to start their own businesses fell by almost two-thirds between 2007 and 2010, which may be no surprise given the increasing regulatory complexity facing small businesses. Indeed, it is not surprising that in a government-dominated society, it is increasingly difficult for the less powerful to become independent of government.

In many respects, the Left has long since abandoned the working and middle class.  As AFL-CIO President George Meany described the 1972 Democratic National Convention, there were no steelworkers, no pipe fitters, and no plumbers in attendance.  Instead, the Convention was dominated by political dissidents and radicals seeking a transformation of American culture.  But this transformation has not worked well for the poor, as Charles Murray demonstrates in Coming Apart.  Murray reveals how, just as liberals over the past half-century have been trying to effectuate an economic redistribution toward the poor, they were simultaneously waging a cultural and moral redistribution away from the poor, with the result that the poor now live lives of dysfunction and chaos, while the cultural elite continue to live in accordance with the traditional values of marriage, family, self-discipline, education and thrift.

This cultural redistribution has been opposed by conservatives because it is destructive to the poor.  In the same way and for the same reason, conservatives have opposed the dramatic drift toward bigger and more socially suffocating government. The challenge ahead for conservatives is to make their advocacy for poor and struggling Americans a prominent feature of their political identity.


Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research.


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  2. Betty Barrett says:

    I am so glad I read this article and I agree that is very important that the conservative platform must be re-introduced to the public in a way that will show the true intent and hope of the conservative philosophy as it is today. I have had a few conversations recently (I am sure the election and the passions it inspired created the opportunities for dialogue) and find that many are not friendly toward the idea of conservatism…and I think you have nailed the reasons why. The public is still working from a frame of mind that is decades out of sync with current thought and purpose.

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