The vital center

All one hears today about Washington is that it is broken. Congressional approval ratings hover at about ten percent. The President’s rating is a good bit higher than that but certainly nothing to write home about. And why is this? I have always thought that it is precisely because our elected representatives believe that consent means surrender, that compromise means defeat. This is certainly not the only time in our country’s history where this mentality has prevailed, but it would be hard to argue that there is anything healthy about what’s happening right now. Tonight I read a piece by conservative author and commentator Steven F. Hayward entitled Modernizing Conservatism. It’s worth a read. Check out volume 2 under author Hayward. It seems Hayward and I think alike, mostly.

I’ll try to do justice to the piece. Liberals and conservatives fundamentally disagree about the principle of equality in American life. Conservatives stress equal opportunity while accepting unequal outcomes. Liberals strongly prefer more equal results and favor egalitarian policies and entitlement programs. That said, at the center of the parties representing those opposing beliefs, there is a fair amount of agreement. Most liberals are not pure redistributionists while few conservatives are entirely indifferent to the importance of income mobility and social opportunity. Ideological extremists in both parties have at times tended to capture the stage and right now, the prospects for compromise appear remote. Yet, he argues, the time is ripe for both a conservative and liberal reformations. In their current incarnations, both are failing and that ought to be obvious to all. It certainly is obvious to the American people.

Here’s his analysis that follows. The entitlement state is here to stay. That state is largely built upon the idea of middle-class entitlements for which both Democrats and Republicans are responsible. Neither party, like it or not, has the ability to change that status quo. Thirty years after the Reagan Revolution, government is bigger than ever and it has grown under Democrats and Republicans alike. Where conservatives have been successful in cutting government, they have had virtually no success in cutting middle-class entitlements, which represent the lion’s share of federal spending and unrestrained growth. Even the Reagan administration managed to avoid any serious attempt to reform entitlement programs. And his disinclination to attack these programs was one reason for his popularity.

Hayward’s solution is this: require Americans to pay for all the government we receive (rather than the 60% we pay for now). Right now, the anti-tax bias of the Right, he suggests, results in shifting costs onto future generations and enables the Left to defending against spending restraints too cheaply. Hayward proceeds to offer some centrists ideas for tax reform, for reforming entitlement programs, for creating workable environmental policies, and for supporting public investments. I’ll let those who want to read the details go to his story, but here’s the gist of what appeals to me about his arguments.

Liberals need to acknowledge that the American people will never support the high level of taxation that would be necessary to support the future welfare state that has been set in motion. I completely agree and have argued elsewhere in this blog, in reference to city and state pension obligations, that we need to pay the piper now. That will require both an increase in taxes and a reduction in benefits. And, Hayward advises his fellow conservatives, we need to accept tye fact that conservatism is failing on its own terms. The social indicators so important to conservatives have not fared well. Political and economic indicators bring even worse news. And all this has happened under the leadership of both party’s leadership.

The conservative belief that it can and will achieve complete and ultimate triumph over liberalism is no more defensible that the opposing point of view. Grover Norquist’s desire to shrink government to almost nothing is a fantasy. And the Democrat’s belief that changing American demographics will eventually swamp the other side is just wishful and fanciful thinking. Victory is not possible for either side. Neither ideological camp will ever defeat the other so decisively as to be able to govern without the consent of the other side. “This is not merely my political judgment; it is sewn into the nature of America’s basic institutions”. To that I say, Hallelujah. In the end, America must be governed from the middle, sometimes leaning left and sometimes leaning right. That’s as it has been and as it should be.

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One Response to The vital center

  1. William Aitken, OU '64 says:

    Larry. Thank you for sharing this with us. I have to agree with the notion that a large part of the current problem arises from that fact that our elected representatives (and a large number of those they represent) believe “that consent means surrender, that compromise means defeat”. Our system of government depends upon compromise for its very success. However, I wondered, as OU’s President, how would you square the remediation of this view with the motto of OU, nescit cedere, the balance of compromise and ‘sticking to your guns’, so to speak, in the current situation? I have always tried to live the nescit cedere value and have been pondering lately the balance that is appropriate (in any shpere of life). I hope you will have the opportunity to address this issue in the future. Thanks…..Bill Aitken, OU ’64

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