In a 1996 interview, Robin Williams described Claremont McKenna College, where he spent his freshman year, as “very conservative, with a lot of economists, a lot of think tank guys.”
The school has changed a good deal since Williams was on campus; but there is still a sizable subset of students who dream to work at the American Enterprise Institute or National Review.
Such think tank-types are engaging in a debate that is reshaping and revitalizing the conservative intellectual scene. Many of these thought leaders are coalescing around what is commonly described as “reform conservatism.” Congressman Paul Ryan, the Chairman of the House Budget Committee and the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, is a think tank-type and a leading reform conservative. A frat member in college who majored in economics, he would have fit in well at CMC.
Ryan’s central argument in his new book, The Way Forward, focuses on the importance of empowering civil society, as opposed to the government, in order to reinvigorate the “American Idea.”
He describes the “American Idea” as “a way of life made possible by our commitment to the principles of freedom and equality—and rooted in our respect for every person’s natural rights.” Maybe it’s necessary that he coin a term that encompasses his principles; but, for a term referenced a couple dozen times in 260 pages, the “American Idea” comes off a bit flat on paper, kind of like the word “leadership” at CMC. Ryan and his team could have done better.
A term used to describe views not unlike Mr. Ryan’s is “libertarian conservatism.” For those not so familiar with Ryan’s philosophy, it’s mainstream conservatism with Catholic influences mixed with a light version of libertarianism. It’s a modern middle ground between Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman, applying their principles to policy in new and innovative ways.
Whatever his views on the “American Idea,” Ryan is much clearer when he talks about the subjects with which he is more comfortable. Ryan champions civil society. In his language:
It’s that vast middle ground between the government and the individual where our families, our neighborhoods, our businesses, our groups and associations, and our places of worship reside. It’s the space where we live our lives—and it’s been a prominent characteristic of our culture from the very beginning.
The autobiographical aspects of his book convey the importance of these voluntary associations to the successes of cities and of individuals.
One type of association is mentorship. Ryan attributes his successes in large part to his many mentors. Perhaps his most important mentor was Jack Kemp, who Ryan worked for at Empower America. Ryan saw Kemp “tour poverty-stricken areas and inner-city communities. He brought the message of conservatism to people who had never heard it before.” Kemp served as Ryan’s political mentor while influencing his policy ideas.
Soon after leaving Empower America, Ryan was elected to Congress, where he quickly became a budget expert. After the 2010 Republican wave, he went from an outsider within the party to chairman of the Budget Committee, providing a better platform to advance his annual budget proposals. When Mitt Romney chose Ryan as his running mate, the Congressman realized that by joining the ticket, “it could make [his] proposals some of the guiding documents in a Republican presidency.”
But they lost. Ryan spent 2013 on a sort of listening tour in those places that don’t see national Republican leaders, the kinds of places Jack Kemp visited. This year, Ryan has focused on poverty, issuing a report and a policy proposal on the issue through his budget committee in addition to his annual budget.
Ryan sees the government as partly responsible for making poverty more difficult and more widespread in America. His case study for dysfunction is Detroit, where government “eroded the space for the community,” contributing to the sorry state of the city today, where it’s a victory not if a house is built but instead, razed. Detroit is a harbinger of things to come, a place where, “the encroachment of government facilitated by liberal progressive policies weakens our bonds with one another and drains our communities of their vitality.”
For Ryan, “the solution to these challenges often involves government, but in a supporting role. The people—in a robust and free civil society—should have the lead.” Ryan’s poverty reform program fills a chapter in his book. It is focused on making the safety net, like the rest of the federal government, “simpler, smaller, and smarter.” The centerpiece of Ryan’s reform is a consolidation and reorganization of many of the federal government’s at least 92 programs that in 2012 spent at least $799 billion on efforts to help low-income Americans. Ryan would provide block grants to those states that chose to try his reform program. The states would then contract with nonprofits and for-profit corporations to hire caseworkers who would not just pass out checks but show their clients the path to a better life and use their discretion to provide aid based on regional and individual circumstances.
Ryan speaks from experience when it comes to the safety net. After his father’s death, he “saw government make a difference for the better in our lives” through survivor benefits. They helped him go to college and in a few years his mother “transformed from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman.”
As Ryan has traveled the country these last two years, he’s seen civil society in action, revitalizing neighborhoods by helping addicts escape their disease and rescuing the homeless. Ryan wants government to help society heal its own wounds.
For all the promise of Ryan’s poverty proposals, one risk remains: If Ryan’s programs were put into place, would we run the risk that enmeshing civil society more deeply with the government could undermine it? Introducing tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars of new federal money to non-governmental organizations could lead to some serious distortions and perversions in the motivations of the organizations that make up civil society. Couldn’t such a system in fact make government stronger and undermine a powerful mediator between government and the individual? Ryan calls for conditions on federal disbursements. They make sense, but conditions are already a major tool for the federal government to exert its influence in state policy and could prove excessive or counterproductive for anti-poverty grants.
Speaking of making things worse, Ryan does criticize his fellow Republicans for doing so. He directs some blame toward himself, speaking of his own error in using the language of “makers and takers” to describe those who are net contributors and net recipients of federal tax money, when recipients include soldiers, retirees, and the upwardly mobile poor. He also writes that he wishes Romney’s team made 2012 less a referendum and more a choice election, with lines like: “You can’t simply run against your opponent; you have to stand for something.”
Ryan’s most aggressive language, however, is reserved for the Ted Cruz faction of the Republican Party, which he views as excessively opposed to compromise and, perhaps, immune to reason. Although he is known for his strong conservative credentials, Ryan provides examples of bills that came up during his legislative career that he did not like, but that he voted for nonetheless. Responsible legislators accept the best legislation possible at a given time since “votes that look ‘pure’ can really pave the way for a more harmful policy.” The government shutdown was the Cruzers’ lowest point:
For weeks, a few conservatives in the Senate and some outside groups had been claiming that the House could unilaterally defund Obamacare by refusing to fund the government. That’s not how the law works.
Ryan references James Madison in response to Ted Cruz-style Republicans. Ryan applauds Madison for making serious concessions in the process of crafting the Constitution and then ardently working to see it ratified by the states. “We became the country we are because James Madison was a prudent man.”
Now, on to the real question: Is Paul Ryan running for president in 2016? Does he see himself as the next James Madison? He’s a young man. At 44, Ryan still has about a quarter century ahead in which he could and at some point probably will seek the presidency. But is 2016 the year? Based on his book, it seems likely. It reads like a campaign book with its mix of autobiography and policy prescriptions. In a sign of restraint, there is no chart or data table in the book from the first page to the last. He will confront Ted Cruz. And look at that cover.
The policy issues raised in his book are just a few of the many conservatives must consider if they are ever to attempt an aggressive reform of the massive modern bureaucratic state. If we want a government that is more comprehensible, more manageable, and less irrational, Ryan’s ideas aren’t perfect, but nobody’s are. His do seem likely to lead the right direction, toward a “simpler, smaller, smarter” federal government.
This review opens a series on the changing philosophical bent of contemporary conservatism and the ways it can be applied to policy.
– Mitt Romney interviewing Paul Ryan on C-SPAN
– Ryan Lizza’s 2012 profile of Ryan
– The 2015 Ryan Budget
– The Budget Committee’s report on the War on Poverty
– Ryan’s poverty proposal, “Expanding Opportunity in America”