Conservatism in two countries

Last week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) delivered a truly remarkable speech to the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.  I beg you, read the speech in its entirety.  It is, without question, the rarest of beasts to issue from a so-called Washington insider: a philosophical argument for small government, grounded in first principles, incautious in style, bold in policy proposals, and rooted in a coherent understanding of intellectual history.  Rep. Ryan, who aquitted himself so admirably at last month’s “Health Care Summit”, takes clear aim at what is often called the “dependency agenda” of the American Left:

These leaders are walking America down a new path … creating entitlements and promising benefits that model the United States after the European Union: a welfare state society where most people pay little or no taxes but become dependent on government benefits … where tax reduction is impossible because more people have a stake in the welfare state than in free enterprise … where high unemployment is accepted as a way of life, and the spirit of risk-taking is smothered by a tangle of red tape from an all-providing centralized government.

Ryan goes on to explain how succeeding generations of Progressivist policies have created a society in which the vast majority of American households receive more in federal benefits than they pay in taxes.  His argument against such a state of affairs is both practical (it has created unsustainable national debt and public entitlements), and philosophical (can we truly claim to live in a free and equal society when seven out of 10 households are dependent on government confiscation of the property of the remaining three?)

The meat of the speech includes straightforward policy proposals for how the root of the Big Government problem — the insolvent and growing public entitlement sector — can be attacked and reformed.  These are not the solipsistic tinkerings of small-minded bureaucrats, but rather public policy viewed as a means to an end — liberty — and as such, deployed against the leviathan that threatens to strangle that liberty.

Eventually, Ryan lays out his idea of what the Republican Party ought to represent against such a backdrop:

My party challenges the whole basis of the Progressivist vision of this country’s future. We challenge their attack on American exceptionalism. We challenge their claim that bureaucratic centralization is the only way the US can meet the economic and social challenges of our time.

Let us hope so.  Every candidate who hopes for the support of conservatives this November, and in the preceding primaries, ought to embrace this vision without hesitation or equivocation.

Contrast this with the situation unfolding in Britain at this very moment.  With parliamentary elections on the horizon and the Labour Party looking weaker than it has in the past four election cycles, Conservative Party leader David Cameron delivered his manifesto this past friday.  To be sure, Cameron said most of the right things.  He threatened to crush bureaucracy, fight for lower taxes, stand up to unions, and hand more power to the people (whatever that means).  But a closer look will reveal that, while it is couched in many of the same talking points, Cameron’s message is not remotely the same as Paul Ryan’s.

First, note the lack of any straightforward policy pledge or proposal.  There is perhaps one exception, albeit one that left me scratching my head:

We are setting out a positive alternative, as shown this week. Labour will kill the recovery with their tax on jobs – so we’ll cut Labour waste to stop it – a policy endorsed by business leaders with their letter to this paper on Thursday. Seven out of 10 working people will be better off with the Conservatives. And Labour’s top-down Government will make our broken society worse, not better. So we will create an army of community organisers, independent of the state, to build the Big Society – where people come together to solve their own problems.

Huh?  If they are independent of the state, what exactly is the state’s role in creating them?

Let’s leave aside for a moment this befuddling Americorps-style nod to community organizing.  The substance of Cameron’s case for Conservative government is essentially that his party will slow down the pace at which Labour manages to screw things up.  He will oppose tax increases and cut down on the “waste” within the bureaucracies and entitlements that Labour has created over the years.  Cameron’s own statement of his party’s mission is that it provides a “clear, positive, engaging agenda on public services.”

Here we have an apt encapsulation of the European center-right managerial ethos, and one that bears absolutely no resemblence to Paul Ryan’s clarion call to the GOP.  European conservatives promise to be a speed-bump on the road to socialist insolvency and bureaucratic soft-tyranny.  They will manage the Left’s programs better, and thus forestall complete collapse until the next election cycle.

The fact of the matter is that Cameron and his continental counterparts simply do not have the option of launching a wholesale, Ryan-style attack on statism, for the precise reason that Ryan articulates.  The dependency agenda in Europe is so deeply entrenched that the vast majority of Europeans do indeed have a greater stake in the state than in liberty.  The role of British government has come to be seen primarily as the provision of services.  As such, Cameron can do no more than to promise to provide those services more efficiently.

Can America avoid this fate?  We’re already a good way toward succumbing to it.  But if Paul Ryan’s vision carries the day this November, there may yet be a glimmer of hope.

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