The underlying goals of the big entitlement programs are ones we can all agree on: Everyone should have access to affordable health care and to security in his old age. Ensuring access to basic necessities is a responsibility of any properly functioning society, and institutions are the only way to ensure that access. The question is, Institutions of what kind and at what level?
In his inaugural address on Monday, President Obama said, “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.” He’s right that progress requires collective action. In a democracy, progress requires the constant renewal of institutions. That requires collective action at every level of society, in and out of government.
But President Obama is flat wrong on the other point: Progress does require us to settle, “for all time,” long-standing debates about the role of government — just as, by 1860, we needed to settle “for all time” the age-old debate over slavery.
Many liberals could be brought around to understanding this, if conservatives spoke to them on their own terms, on the basis of common ground. And one vast, unexplored area of common ground is community values.
I wish that Paul Ryan had succeeded in making his Wisconsin background a more prominent theme of the 2012 campaign. I went to college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I remember once standing on the shore of Lake Mendota, in James Madison Park, where there is a great view of the state capitol atop a hill in one direction and of the university sprawled along the lake shore in another. I was looking back and forth from the capitol to the university, and taking in the lovely town of Madison collected snugly all about them, when it struck me that I was beholding something out of the Framers’ fondest dreams — the fruition of their dreams.
For me, the town of Madison captures the Framers’ vision of a good, prosperous, and peaceful society. And, as most Madisonians know instinctively, the protection and prosperity of one’s community requires the vigilance and dedication of its citizens. That is the true ethic of civic virtue and public service, and Wisconsinites of all political stripes possess it in abundance.
“We’re all in this together,” the president likes to say, nearly always in a partisan jab at those mean, selfish Republicans, as if conservatives believe it’s every man for himself. But in fact — and conservatives must insist on this point as a matter of first priority — conservatives believe in the principle of community even more strongly than liberals do.
This is not hard to demonstrate. Liberals trot out the community theme almost exclusively to justify programs at the federal level, but more often than not, the proponents of these programs aim to extract special benefits for themselves at the expense of everyone else. Conservatives, by contrast, believe in community at every level. In fact, much of the conservative program boils down to defending communities at all levels — with all their social safety nets — from the growing leviathan of federal power. This was the argument of Yuval Levin’s must-read cover story in the August 13, 2012, issue of National Review, “The Hollow Republic.” It is a theme we should elevate to the top of the conservative agenda.
Conservatives think they are fighting to preserve and revive the principles that made America great. Liberals think they are fighting for progress in our time. In fact the two goals are one and the same. As Charles de Gaulle once said, no institution can long survive unless it is constantly renewed.
Individual liberty can’t last without the flourishing of strong and close-knit communities. But neither can those communities succeed without liberty and personal responsibility. Let that be the common ground on which this generation forges a new consensus, and a worthy legacy.
— Mario Loyola is director of the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.