Publisher's note: The author of this post is the CJ Staff, who is a contributor to the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.
National Review Onlineís Reihan Salam documents challenging political questions
RALEIGH Conservatives and libertarians spend a lot of time talking about freedom: free markets, limited government, personal responsibility. Reihan Salam, author of National Review Online's domestic policy blog, "The Agenda," says much less of the discussion focuses on translating the principles of freedom into practical policies. During a recent visit to Chapel Hill, Salam discussed these issues with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here
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: Would you agree that conservatives often shy away from the practical part of linking their principles to real policies?
: Yeah, I think it's a challenge, partly because when you're looking at these policy questions, they're immensely complicated, and you've got a lot of winners and losers, from any reform that you're going to launch. And some of those losers might be people who are Republican constituents. And the thing about an affluent society is that an affluent society gets very loss-averse. No one wants to give up their piece of the pie.
So, for example, when you think about entitlement reform, well, look, any entitlement reform that's really going to save money over time is going to be something that is going to disadvantage some people -- whether they're medical practitioners, whether they're perhaps some beneficiaries. Even the most well-designed reform is going to generate some losers as well as some winners. And that is immensely difficult for any politician, whether they're ostensibly conservative or liberal.
: So it's difficult, but we still have to translate ideas into policies. How do we do that?
: Well, what you try to do is identify win-win solutions, to the extent possible. There's an economist, Jacob Vigdor, at Duke who's done a lot of fascinating work, as you know, about teacher salaries, teacher compensation in North Carolina. Now, you know, for a conservative or libertarian, your impulse might be, you know, gosh, we really need to introduce market principles in this space, and that's certainly something I believe.
But between here and there, you know, there are a lot of students who are in public schools and who, I think, have good reason to want those schools to be of better, higher quality. So what are some incremental things that we can do that are not necessarily too threatening, but that can improve the workings of, you know, our schools at the margin. That's a kind of thing that Republicans need to think about more seriously.
One issue with small-government Republicans is that, you know, we oftentimes talk in these very big, ambitious, sometimes even apocalyptic ways. And I think the problem is that, well, yeah, you can say, "I want small government," but then say nothing about the actual workings of the public schools and Medicare and what have you. And really, you know, then you're not really relevant to people's lives. And so then it sounds a lot like hot air, rather than like the kind of thing that's really going to be bettering the lives of your average middle-income voter.
So that's why you really need to talk about those intermediate cases, those thorny cases where you can't just simply say, "Let's get rid of government altogether." But rather, well, what can we do to introduce some market principles at the margin to make the public sector more responsive and more efficient, and really demonstrate that, hey, wait a second, you know, you don't have to go from zero to 60 in sort of two seconds. You can actually do something that's incremental that really makes a positive difference.
: Do conservatives and libertarians spend too much time making the perfect the enemy of the good?
: Yeah, absolutely. And I understand why. Because the thing is that there are a lot of folks who think, "Well, look, if we get stuck in this incremental stuff then we're just entrenching the system." You know, the idea that Newt Gingrich called Bob Dole the tax collector for the welfare state, very memorably. And I think that's an anxiety a lot of folks have. It's like, wait a second, we don't want to compromise, because by compromising we're just legitimating big government.
And I understand that, and it's not an unreasonable argument. The problem is that you actually have to persuade people. And the surest way to persuade people is, again, by demonstrating that your ideas, when put into practice, actually deliver results.
Now, you know, again, there are some libertarians who are like, hey, it's not about results, it's about principle, it's about freedom. I get that. But the thing is that most people don't share those views, and in a democracy like ours, you know, it's a matter of 50 plus one. You know what I mean? You have to get that median voter on your side. And, you know, to make a persuasive argument you're going to have to actually demonstrate that your ideas work.
: Given where things stand today, what needs to change for the conservative movement, the Republican Party, or both?
: I have a somewhat idiosyncratic view about this. One of the things that I believe is that we actually need stronger political parties. So one issue that you have, in our current system, is because of campaign finance regulation, or what other folks call campaign finance reform, we have a very candidate-centered system.
And so a lot of folks, a lot of candidates, aren't all that accountable to their political party. They're really primarily interested in getting re-elected, and that actually makes them kind of risk-averse a lot of the time. Whereas if you have a stronger political party, my sense is that it's going to do a better job of making trade-offs between achieving your long-term ideological goals and winning elections, and, frankly, disciplining candidates.
So, you know, here in the South, in a state like North Carolina, a state like Florida, you have quite a lot of Republicans who go off the reservation on issues like school choice and what have you because they think, "Well, I'm representing my constituents," and fair enough.
But the thing is that if you have a stronger political party to guard its brand, it might say, "Well, actually, no. Maybe you personally want to be aligned with the public-sector unions, but you're going to have to do that on your own time, and you're going to have to do that outside of the boundaries of this political party because our movement is about public-sector efficiency."
So I think that actually stronger political parties would be a good thing. Now, of course what most people say is that, "Oh, our political parties are too strong. The system is too polarized." And I actually don't think that's right. I think that having a clear distinction between the parties is actually a really good thing, because it actually helps clarify issues for voters, and it actually also helps advance really constructive, substantive policy goals as well.
: If the parties are more ideologically pure, how do you ensure that conservatives can actually get things done when they don't have the White House or enough votes in Congress?
: That's a really, really good question. And I'd say that there are a lot of folks who buy into what you might call the Simpson-Bowles model -- you know, the idea that, hey, let's just kind of reconcile what are the basic principles of these two sides and sort of make it work from there. I've got to say, I think that doesn't quite work.
I think that, you know, I would think about let's look at reforming the filibuster in the Senate, you know, let's look at building a coherent program among members of one party or the other, before you get into office, so that you can really move the football down the field. I think that might be a better way to do it, and then you have a clear choice for the electorate.
I think that when you have compromise, we should approach it somewhat differently. So, for example, Republicans should not enter a negotiation preemptively saying, "Of course we're going to embrace tax increases." That's silly because you're giving up your leverage.
But, on the other hand, if you have a sufficiently strong party, someone like a John Boehner can say, "Look, you know, I believe that we've actually managed to extract some significant concessions, and so we are willing to play ball." But you need to have a united caucus to do that, and you need mutual trust within that caucus, and that goes back to the importance of having strong political parties. You need that trust.
So what I'm saying is not so much the party should be further right or further center or anything like that. But if it's more united, if it's more coherent, then you're actually in a better position to negotiate a smart compromise.
: Are younger conservatives and libertarians more open to these ideas than the older, entrenched powers that be?
: Yeah, I think they are. I think they are. Because I think that the issue mix, you know, it changes. My favorite example of this is the fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act, SOPA, a little while ago. There are a lot of conservatives who thought, "Well, I don't have a dog in this fight." So there were plenty of people who were just willing to go along with the status quo, willing to go along with the motion picture industry and the recording industry and kind of what they believed.
But then it turns out that, hey, wait a second, we've got the technology industry, and they're saying that a lot of these policies are going to limit our ability to innovate. So we need to protect the Internet as kind of the Hong Kong of our economy, as a real site of freedom and innovation.
So again, that wasn't really thought of as a right or left issue, but then you suddenly got conservatives to say, "Wait a second, yeah, this actually is a really important issue." You've got to mobilize people around new issues, the issues of the future.