What Conservatives Get Right About Politics
Localism, tradition, common sense, and a focus on unintended consequences in policy making are all good ideas for building a stronger country.
Part of developing a genuine liberal nationalism requires examining and absorbing good ideas from around the political spectrum that can help America succeed and uphold values of freedom, tolerance, and opportunity for all. In that spirit, here are some of the best ideas and concepts promoted by conservatives that should be considered in policy making. Next week, this exercise will be repeated examining the best ideas emanating from the economic left.
Some of the best concepts from conservatives:
Subsidiarity and localism. Subsidiarity is a confusing term—used mostly in Catholic social teaching—that represents an important concept: policies and political issues are best handled at the local level and within natural social contexts such as families, neighborhoods, parishes, workplaces, etc. This notion of localism doesn’t preclude or replace universal policies and government social programs, nor does it give license to different sets of rules that might threaten individual rights. Rather, a commitment to subsidiarity and localism merely asks political and community leaders to design policies—such as infrastructure investments or anti-poverty programs or work training efforts—from the ground up rather than from the top down.
A focus on subsidiarity and localism puts lots of decision making directly in the hands of ordinary people. The correct insight here is that Americans themselves know more than far-off bureaucrats about what it is needed for their own families, businesses, and communities. This approach not only produces better results for people, it also upholds freedom and citizenship for all Americans. By placing more decision making in the hands of smaller units in society, the big decisions that affect everyone equally are then reserved for the national government on matters like security, trade, and commerce on the whole.
This simple concept of subsidiarity and localism makes good sense on most issues. If the government wants to help people, the main thing it can do is offer support and money from the top and leave it to local leaders and citizens to figure out what works best for families, businesses, and development projects in their specific contexts.
Tradition and common sense. Tradition and common sense are concepts often derided as covers for the status quo or biases that serve some people more than others. In some cases, this can be true. At the same time, tradition and common sense properly understood represent inherited wisdom, experiences, and norms that groups of people commit to collectively and refine over time to justify behaviors, laws, and customs.
Religious principles and practices are one source of tradition. Cultural education and family histories are another. Basic legal requirements or best practices in the business world are a third source of tradition. And American history and constitutionalism serve as a final source of tradition. In each case, values, experiences, and laws honed and improved over time offer important guidance to people about how to do things today.
Traditions are vital to maintaining softer norms that keep society together and encourage different groups of people look out for one another. Likewise, when governments fail to respect or outright threaten these traditions, democratic legitimacy declines and anger rises. Looking at a recent controversy, if the government wants widely available contraception for women—a laudable societal goal to encourage smart family planning and reduce unwanted pregnancies—it should provide the benefit directly itself rather than forcing nuns and other Catholic organizations to provide the benefit. There’s no purpose in attacking Catholic tradition on this, even if one disagrees with it, when there are other more direct routes to achieving the same goal.
Democratic pluralism requires governments to work with and not against people’s belief systems and traditions, within constitutionally defined parameters.
Common sense simply applies a legal notion of a reasonable person to matters of policy. Americans know when a regulation or policy defies reasonable standards. Much of the current wrangling over Covid restrictions triggers debates about how best to apply common sense in balancing public health and individual freedom. For example, it defies common sense to require people to wear a mask to go to the dinner table or bar but then allow them to take it off to eat or drink. No one is protected from the coronavirus by this charade, and it makes people cynical about the entire endeavor. Common sense dictates not creating a regulation that serves little purpose and encourages widespread flouting of the rules.
Common sense offers a good corrective to other bureaucratic traditions that are often unreasonable and should be changed—think of convoluted queues for services at the DMV, random and shifting screening rules to board an airplane, or the multiple hurdles people must jump over to get a business started or access unemployment, health care, and housing benefits.
Smart leaders should respect good traditions in American life and use common sense to dismantle rules and regulations that are manifestly unreasonable or useless.
Unintended consequences. One of the sharpest insights from the more libertarian wing of conservative thought, and economics and other social sciences more broadly, involves the notion of unintended consequences. The main purpose of examining unintended consequences in policy making is to scrutinize the utility or effectiveness of various governmental regulations or policies. This idea is related to common sense but goes a bit further by requiring decision makers to analyze potential and real spillover effects from implementing a particular set of rules.
If we enact this law or rule, how will behaviors change in response and will the law or rule advance our primary goal or just create new problems?
Although not a conservative himself, Breakthrough Institute executive director, Ted Nordhaus, offers an excellent example of how unintended consequences work on the climate front in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal. Nordhaus argues that numerous governmental social and environmental regulations put in place over the years now prevent many clean energy projects from getting off the ground in any reasonable amount of time thus eliminating any positive attempts to reduce carbon and other emissions.
The unintended consequence of a regulation protecting a certain species or a land use policy, for example, makes it hard to scale up other positive climate projects in a timely manner. As Nordhaus lays out:
Indeed, far from clearing a path for the construction of a low-carbon, clean-energy economy, Democrats and environmentalists propose to add still more bureaucratic and regulatory requirements to the already Kafkaesque process of building any major energy or infrastructure project. President Biden’s landmark executive order on environmental justice, for example, has directed every federal agency to screen all new infrastructure and clean-energy spending for disparate racial impact while carving out 40% of all spending for marginalized communities. Congress, meanwhile, has produced complicated formulas to guide its proposed new clean-energy investments in order to encourage the use of union labor and to achieve various other wage and occupational outcomes…
And make no mistake, such projects are already shockingly difficult to build. Merely completing an environmental-impact statement for infrastructure projects now takes almost five years on average.
The implications are daunting for efforts to make progress against climate change. To reach “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades, the best current modeling suggests that the U.S. will need to triple its existing transmission infrastructure for electricity in order to carry power from wind and solar farms and other renewable sources. Yet, over the last decade, the U.S. hasn’t constructed a single major new transmission line.
Smart policymakers should take heed of potential and real unintended consequences like these when designing and implementing policies if they want laws that are both effective and respected by citizens and businesses.
While more strident conservative ideologues promote an unfocused disdain for government that is often counterproductive to American interests, conservatives on the whole provide important and mostly measured criticisms of government overreach and irrationality. Conservative ideas at their best serve American interests by stressing the importance of free enterprise and small business. A well functioning private economy is critical to American jobs and wealth creation, and policy makers would be wise to incorporate suggestions coming from conservatives and the private sector when designing new laws and rules.
So, thanks to conservatives for some important lessons for achieving a successful nation: think locally; uphold good traditions and tear down bureaucratic ones that make no sense; support private enterprise in smart ways; and thoroughly examine how laws and regulations function in the real world before putting them in place.
Next week, I’ll explore some good ideas and concepts coming from the economic left.