Tough Challenges Ahead

For conservatives, just saying ‘no’ probably won’t be enough to solve our state’s and nation’s problems

By Richard Esenberg

The Walker administration has come, it has seen and, at least so far, it has conquered. As I argued in my last column here, the governor managed to achieve traditional conservative objectives (lower taxing and spending) without corresponding service reductions.

What’s next?

This is a complicated question. Conservatives don’t believe that government is the measure of the state or that the improvement of our lot turns on whatever it does or fails to do. Those who compare the buoyant rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama often fail to recognize that they were celebrating very different things. Reagan believed in the genius of the people acting as individuals and voluntary associations. For Obama, “we the people” is more likely to be seen as a collective expressing its will though politics and government.

For conservatives, a politician’s pre-eminent virtue is humility. He must not become enamored of his ability to “create” jobs, fertilize industries or, in the words of Eric Voegelin, “immanentize the eschaton.” We don’t expect our political leaders to heal the sick, cool the planet or cause the waters to recede. We subscribe to the maxim: First, do no harm.

Having said that, conservatives cannot expect — or want — the state to wither away. Belief in free markets, individual liberty and a robust civil society does not imply the absence of government. We are facing a difficult political time in which our instincts may be to “just say no,” but exigencies may require more.

As we move into the 2012 election cycle, it is unlikely to be “Morning in America” either in Wisconsin or elsewhere. The economy remains sluggish, and the housing collapse burdens the lives of millions of Americans in a way that little else has in the postwar era.

Just about every tool in the liberal arsenal — stimulus, industrial policy and tax preferences — has failed. Absent a dramatic and unforeseen turnaround, there is no prospect for the president to win re-election on his record.

He knows this and having lost the opportunity for Clintonian triangulation by believing (incorrectly) that he had a mandate to move the country to the left, he has decided to double down, declaring — in fact embracing — class warfare.

Much of this is incoherent. While the president calls for more taxes on the rich, he extends those increases to people who make as little as $200,000 — comfortable to be sure, but hardly the wealth of Croesus. He argues that “millionaires and billionaires” should pay as much as the rest of us, despite Internal Revenue Service statistics showing that they pay more, both absolutely and as a percentage of income.

For those few high earners who do not, he calls for the closing of “loopholes,” but identifies precious few that he actually opposes. The president calls for “the rich” to close the budget deficit, when “simple math” makes clear that this is not possible.

We have heard much the same here in Wisconsin, where relatively modest reductions in compensation for relatively well-paid public employees were castigated as a “war on the middle class,” as if middle-income Wisconsinites don’t pay taxes.

But to call all of this wrong is not to say that it will be ineffective. Just as crisis brings opportunity, it also calls for a scapegoat. The idea that someone else can be blamed for — and expected to rectify — tough times is attractive. Politicians become demagogues for a reason.

Conservatives ignore this at their peril. So, for starters, while we abjure increases in tax rates, conservatives ought to support rationalizing the tax code and eliminating tax preferences. As Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap” has shown, our approach to entitlement reform should favor middle- and lower- income people over wealthier recipients.
As we address economic stagnation, we should avoid crony capitalism and bailouts.

Our emphasis should be on encouraging — rather than directing — initiative. The Walker reforms managed, in part, to skirt the traditional reductionism of more versus less funding by emphasizing efficiency and allowing local units of government to do the same with less.

Those reforms should serve as a model. If, for example, access to post- secondary education is a problem, we may want to emphasize efficiency and cost reduction rather than simply increasing financial aid to students — a tactic that has arguably done more to increase the cost of higher education than it has to improve access.

Although George W. Bush mismanaged the concept of compassionate conservative and the promotion of an ownership society, both are worthy concepts.

One of the toughest nuts to crack in the coming year will be the housing crisis. A country in which large numbers of households are stuck with mortgages exceeding the value of their homes is going to lack economic vitality. Unwinding this is going to require pain and may be one of those cases in which government is going to have to ameliorate the consequences of capitalism’s creative destruction.

All of this is more evocative than prescriptive. We have some thinking to do. And not much time to do it.

Richard Esenberg is president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and an adjunct professor of law at Marquette University. He blogs at