TCS Daily

The Opportunities of Freedom

By Ramesh Ponnuru - June 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Ronald Reagan's great contribution to American conservatism was to shift its emphasis from the dangers of action to the opportunities of freedom. Reagan's optimism has been much though vaguely praised this week. But conservatives could stand to think about the specific political content of that optimism.

Consider the way that Reagan up-ended the national political debates about the budget and about foreign policy. On the budget, pre-Reagan conservatives were stuck in an unwinnable position. Liberals would offer voters a new benefit, and conservatives would say no-or, worse, counter-offer a stingier benefit. Taxes could not be cut until spending was reduced: Pre-Reagan conservatives thought that would be irresponsible. Indeed, taxes might have to be increased to pay for new benefits. Republicans were, as Newt Gingrich put it, "tax collectors for the welfare state." Republicans were the party of painful medicine: perhaps a noble role, but not exactly one that voters were likely to reward.

Reagan's supply-side revolution, considered as a political strategy, was a way out of the austerity trap. Economic growth was not an independent variable; it was something that policy could change. If that was the case, the zero-sum fiscal debate could be transcended. If Democrats wanted to reject that model, they could become the party of pain, congratulate themselves on their superior fiscal virtue, and watch themselves lose election after election.

The pre-Reagan Republican position on the Cold War was also a recipe for long-term failure. The Republican establishment was committed, for the most part, to containment, which was curiously compatible with the Brezhnev doctrine. (They tried to expand; we tried to contain them.) As implemented by Republicans in a divided country, containment and realism became a kind of managed decline.

Conservatives wanted something bolder than containment: rollback. But they were able to come up with dozens of reasons the West could not prevail. And they joined the Republican establishment in subscribing to doctrines of nuclear deterrence and mutual assured destruction. It was not an attractive position, or one that Western publics could be expected to embrace indefinitely. The will for John F. Kennedy's "long twilight struggle" was flagging.

Again, Reagan transformed the debate. In place of containment, there was economic subversion of the Soviets (Reagan's energy policy and defense build-up) and a rhetorical and sometimes an operational commitment to rollback. In place of mutual assured destruction, there was missile defense -- a defensive system that Reagan was quite prepared to extend to the rest of the world. Idealism was reclaimed for the Cold Warriors. Confidence in freedom, and the technological achievements of a free people, could lead not just to survival but victory. It was a remarkably bold stance: Who, besides Reagan, imagined that the Soviet Union would collapse? (Who can imagine a non-pathological Middle East now?) Bold, and to his critics reckless. If Democrats wanted to embrace the peculiar realism of the balance of terror, they were free to -- and many did.

Both of Reagan's moves put the Democrats in the position Republicans had occupied: as scolds for prudence, denouncers of visionaries, counselors of fatalism. And there were more realignments to come.

On welfare, post-Reagan conservatives would break free from the zero-sum mentality. No longer would welfare be denounced primarily as a drain on the public coffers. The truly damning failure of the welfare system was that it hurt the people it was supposed to benefit. Defenders of the liberal status quo lost the moral high ground, and the status quo changed.

Conservatives are in the process of transforming the Social Security debate on Reaganite lines. The conservative position on entitlements has been a long-running failure: holding out against new benefits, trying to cut benefits, sometimes hiking taxes to pay for benefits, getting crushed at elections. That pattern held even through the Reagan years. But Reagan also unleashed the 401(k), and rising public participation in capital markets had by the mid-1990s made the idea of mass individual investment of Social Security funds thinkable. Supply-side economics had come to Social Security: instead of asking for benefit cuts, conservatives could go for growth -- and point out that the liberal alternative would be more painful.

Conservatives have not yet, however, realized the opportunities of freedom for the environment. For the most part, they continue either to say me too, but less to liberal proposals for regulation, or oppose such proposals because of their cost. Think tanks and intellectuals have sketched an alternative, conservative environmentalism, but conservative politicians have been slow to pick it up. If they find a way to attack the regulatory status quo not just because it is inefficient but because it does not serve environmental goals, they may effect the shift in politics and policy that they did on welfare.

What I have been describing here as a Reaganite conservatism is not the whole of conservatism. Sometimes a harmony of interests cannot be found. Sometimes painful things must be done. Private accounts for Social Security will not obviate the need for cuts in future benefit levels (although they will reduce them). The dangers of rash action, especially by the state, will always be an important conservative theme. But thanks to Reagan, the opportunities of freedom will be at least as important -- because those opportunities have not been exhausted.

The writer is senior editor at National Review.


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