Small-Ball Conservatism or National Greatness?

Small-ball conservatism dominates mainstream Republican thinking.

It finds expression in the writing of Ramesh Pommeru, Ross Douthat, and Yuval Levin, whose “conservative governing vision” sees a kind of:

… American life in which government does not use society as an instrument to advance progressive aims but rather sustains and strengthens the space in which society can thrive and enables all Americans to take part in what happens in that space.

Levin calls this a “modernized politics of subsidiarity — that is, of putting power, authority and significance as close to the level of interpersonal community as reasonably possible,” that is, doing a lot of good, small things at the base of civil society.

If we play small ball, we will lose. Specifically, we will lose America’s technological and scientific pre-eminence, our dominant position as a military power, and a significant part of our living standard. In a competitive world, “losing” doesn’t mean giving up a couple of points of GDP growth: It means the sort of decline that the United Kingdom suffered in the 1950s and 1960s, when its auto, shipbuilding gand machine-building industries virtually disappeared.

Small-ball conservatism ignores the most important feature of the global economic landscape: our competitors. This isn’t 1981, when the digital revolution overwhelmed the Soviet Union’s formidable advantages in conventional arms. When Ronald Reagan took office, the world’s high-tech entrepreneurs had no place to go except America. American universities had a monopoly on high-end technology, the American defense and space programs dominated cutting-edge research, and American capital markets were the only ready source of capital for high-tech startups.

We still have an edge but it is eroding quickly. America is a second-rate power in high-tech manufacturing, and our monopoly in key fields of knowledge is far from secure. We spend half of what we used to on defense R&D as a fraction of GDP. And we face new and self-confident competitors determined to leapfrog the United States. If we do not meet the hurdle of global competition, whatever good we do in small ways will not help.