Yesterday, the only adult among a group of congressional kindergartners, Rep. Paul Ryan, released his budget proposal for the future. The Democratic establishment immediately responded with the kind of knee-jerk all-out attacks we have come to expect from them. Rep. Nancy Pelosi tweeted: “The #GOP Ryan budget is a path to poverty for America’s seniors & children and a road to riches for big oil #GOPvalues.” Not wanting to be outdone, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, said: “It is not courageous to protect tax breaks for millionaires, oil companies and other big-money special interests while slashing our investment in education, ending the current health care guarantees for seniors on Medicare, and denying health care coverage to tens of millions of Americans.”
It is the usual reactionary Democratic talking points, all meant to scare seniors, make the public believe their access to health care will come to an end, and create a scenario for huge tax increases to make up the deficit.
That is why I almost fell off my chair when I read the very liberal Jacob Weisberg, editor of the Slate Group, respond with a thoughtful article titled “Good Plan!” which states in the heading subtitle that Ryan’s budget proposal is “brave, radical and smart.” I can just see Slate’s readers scratching their heads and asking themselves what has happened to Weisberg. They must have thought for a brief moment that they had logged on to PJM or National Review Online by mistake.
Weisberg understands that there is a genuine problem, and that both Republicans and Democrats have, as he puts it, been lax in confronting “the nation’s long-term fiscal imbalance, which is driven by the projected growth in entitlement spending.” Weisberg goes on to write that “this dynamic of political evasion and reality-denial may have undergone a fundamental shift today with the release of Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget resolution.” Hoping that Republicans will get behind it, Weisberg writes that if they do, the Republican Party “will become for the first time in modern memory an intellectually serious party — one with a coherent vision to match its rhetoric of limited government.”
Weisberg even argues that liberals, rather than respond in the fashion that they have already begun to, consider whether some of Ryan’s proposals might serve them, as well as the country. He doesn’t even reject Ryan’s proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher plan, and writes that “it’s hard to make a principled liberal case for the program in its current form.” And he adds that “Ryan’s alternative to Medicare hardly seems as terrible as Paul Krugman makes out.” The Ryan plan, he notes, is not one that spells an end to the social safety net. He writes:
Eventually, cost control would require some tough decisions about end-of-life care and the rationing of high-tech treatments that have limited efficacy. But starting with a value of $15,000 per year, per senior—the amount government now spends on Medicare—Ryan’s vouchers should provide excellent coverage. His change would amount to a minor amendment to the social contract, not a fundamental revision of it.
Pointing out that Ryan’s proposal would provide “excellent coverage” for seniors is exactly the opposite of the scare tactics all other Democrats are engaging in. Failure to follow Ryan’s lead, he warns, could create a “debt-driven economic crisis” that would “cast a pall over the country’s entire future.” For a moment, Weisberg sounds like — Glenn Beck!
Of course, Weisberg is still a liberal, who favors modest tax increases, and he has some criticism of the Ryan plan. Ryan, he argues, “skirts the question of which deductions and tax subsidies he’d eliminate to pay for these lower [tax] rates.” But he concludes that “more than anyone else in politics, Rep. Ryan has made a serious attempt to grapple with the long-term fiscal issues the country faces.” So I give kudos to Weisberg. He has dared to go against the liberal grain, and has congratulated Ryan for having a “largely coherent, workable set of answers.”
All of this leads me to highly recommend one of the most important essays written in many a year, by Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs. Levin’s article is the perfect companion piece to both Weisberg’s comments as well as Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. Levin has written a very long philosophical piece that carefully delineates and critiques the liberal world-view, and that reveals the difference between how conservatives and liberals perceive the world around them. His point is stated right at the beginning:
But these [regulatory agencies and the massive entitlement system] are mostly symptoms of our mounting unease. The most significant cause runs deeper. We have the feeling that profound and unsettling change is afoot because the vision that has dominated our political imagination for a century — the vision of the social-democratic welfare state — is drained and growing bankrupt, and it is not yet clear just what will take its place.
Levin continues to throw out his bold challenge to those who still believe in the social-democratic ideal, people such as the late Tony Judt, whose last book before his death was an impassioned defense of that very ideal. That ideal has had great staying power. Yuval Levin writes:
That vision was an answer to a question America must still confront: How shall we balance the competing aspirations of our society — aspirations to both wealth and virtue, dynamism and compassion? How can we fulfill our simultaneous desires to race ahead yet leave no one behind? The answer offered by the social-democratic ideal was a technocratic welfare state that would balance these aspirations through all-encompassing programs of social insurance. We would retain a private economy, but it would be carefully managed in order to curb its ill effects, and a large portion of its output would be used by the government to address large social problems, lessen inequality, and thus also build greater social solidarity.
Of course, this vision has never been implemented in full. But it has offered a model, for good and for ill. For the left, it provided long-term goals, criteria for distinguishing progress from retreat in making short-term compromises, and a kind of definition of the just society. For the right, it was a foil to be combated and averted — an archetype of soulless, stifling bureaucratic hubris — and it helped put objections to seemingly modest individual leftward steps into a broader, more coherent context. But both ends of our politics seemed implicitly to agree that, left to its own momentum, this is where our country was headed — where history would take us if no one stood athwart it yelling stop.
Levin’s article is of importance because we need more than the kind of proposal that Rep. Ryan is putting forth. We need, in addition, a head-on challenge to the ideological hegemony of social-democratic, socialist, and Marxist views that so many of our intellectual class stand by. Those who will read Levin’s article knows that he does just that, and indeed acknowledges that in past years that vision had legs because it took root, not during an age of decline for America, but during the years of the economy’s expansion and a rise in the standard of living. Social-democratic activism coincided with the years of the New Deal, Fair Deal, and early Great Society. The problem is that as reality flew in the face of the assumptions behind the policies of those years, few were ready to dispense with the ideology. The result is the current entitlement system, in which, as Levin writes, “age-based wealth transfers in an aging society are obviously problematic.”
So it is up to us to change course. To do that, we must have the kind of intellectual ammunition given to us by writers such as Yuval Levin. He understands that means developing serious answers to the questions that made the social-democratic ideal seem a good one. Levin knows that to develop that, conservatives cannot be made to appear to be enemies of those who need a social safety net, and who believe in making America’s wealth accessible to all in our society. He writes that it is not enough to yell “stop!” What has to be done is focus on the purposes of government itself, helping to show where it must go.
In our current age, Levin stresses as well that we need a change in nomenclature, as Roger L. Simon has argued in these very PJM pages. We must point out that liberals and most Democrats are “the reactionary party” that has its “head in the sand and its mind adrift in false nostalgia,” and is content with minor tinkering at the edges of our welfare state. Conservatives must do more than fight old enemies; they must do more than simply repeat that we have too much government. What they must do is develop real alternatives that the public can grasp and adopt, and to work so that others, not just the wealthy, gain access to capitalism’s benefits. To me, he makes the point well in this key sentence: “It would seek to help the poor not with an empty promise of material equality but with a fervent commitment to upward mobility.”
Most social-democratic programs and arguments, as we know, seek mechanisms they believe will promote material equality, such as a continuing increase of the minimum wage. They do not realize that such policies make things worse for the poor, force businesses to higher fewer people, and in states which had followed suit, force them to shut down or leave for other states that have not mandated such foolish social policies. So, I heartily endorse Levin’s call for a new “policy-oriented conservatism,” whose proponents will work to achieve its ends gradually, through both persuasion and proof, and in accord with the ways in which conservatives know that change can take place.
America, Yuval Levin warns, cannot be allowed to fail along with the social-democratic model. So read his article and pass it on. What he offers is precisely the kind of medicine we have long been in need of. We ignore his arguments at our own peril.