What Would a Return to the Constitution Entail?

One of the principles rooted in the Constitution that conservatives must do a better job of recognizing and respecting is that of progress. It is not only that the people’s intentions proclaimed in the Constitution’s Preamble — “to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” — make progress a Constitutional aspiration. In addition, by protecting freedom and thereby unleashing curiosity, experimentation, innovation, and risk-taking the Constitution fosters an interest in improvement, including improvement of the quality of government.

But not all forms of progress are equally consistent with the spirit of political moderation in which the Constitution was conceived. Less consistent is the immoderate progressive interpretation of improvement that brings bigger, bossier, more arrogant government dictating an ever-expanding array of rules to achieve a greater and more oppressive uniformity in outcomes.

Instead, conservatives should become proponents of progress understood as the crafting of better laws to protect individual freedom. And they should pursue that constitutional mandate, which has been reinforced by the November electoral mandate, in light of changing circumstances, essential constitutional constraints, and the enduring imperfections of human nature.

Of course Congress’s first priority must be bringing spending under control and putting people back to work. But renovating our overextended and fraying social safety net is inseparable from the long-term task of placing our economy on a sound footing. Those who doubt that such is the proper work of conservatives should revisit The Road to Serfdom, Hayek’s classic defense of individual freedom and limited government. In it, the great theorist of liberty does not argue for the abolition of the welfare state, indeed he recognizes the legitimacy of government assisting those who can’t provide for themselves. Instead, he focuses his criticism on the progressive aspiration to undertake extensive central planning of the economy.

To be sure, repairing health care and Social Security without unnecessarily expanding government will require careful calibration of interests and reasonable accommodation of settled expectations and widely shared values.

Progressives seem to think that the task lies beyond conservative concerns and capabilities. After their November triumph, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recycled the conventional progressive wisdom that the current crop of Republicans are bereft of proposals for dealing with the country’s problems, having nothing to offer except “a grab bag of tired clichés.” But it is Friedman whose captivity to cliché prevents him from reporting accurately refreshing Republican public policy ideas.

For example, Representative Paul Ryan’s Roadmap for America’s Future, 2.0 — long available to all courtesy of the world wide web — presents a model of progress, conservatively understood. One can quarrel with the specific proposals it puts forward —  for reforming health care, retirement, taxation, job training, and the budget process. But the spirit in which it approaches reform is exemplary.

The Roadmap starts from the understanding that unsustainable government spending is strangling the economy, which dims the prospects of all citizens for a decent future. It observes that steady expansion of government into the economy and society fosters a culture of dependency, which corrodes character by turning self-reliance into a vice. It nevertheless recognizes that government has acquired and must discharge “a necessary role in supporting the institutions through which Americans live their lives, and in providing a safety net for those who face financial or other hardships.” And it insists that reforms must be designed and evaluated in light of their ability to promote individual freedom, personal responsibility, and economic prosperity.

Such an approach makes a fair claim to embodying the spirit of political moderation in which the Constitution was created and combining the commitment to limited government and judicious reform that is critical to conserving it.