Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

‘Should the Government Help?’ A Three-Part Test for Conservatives.

Progressives will always say “yes.” Libertarians will always say “no.” Conservatives, on the other hand ...
by Avi Woolf
February 13, 2019
‘Should the Government Help?’ A Three-Part Test for Conservatives.
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

The conservative answer to whether government should help is almost always: “It depends.”

A recent Pew study of millenial and Generation Z attitudes on the question of whether “government should do more to solve problems” revealed that 64% and 70% agreed to this statement, respectively. This sounds dire for conservatism, given its traditional support for rolling back government and its ideal of achieving a limited form thereof. However, I think this is a good opportunity to restate and reformulate the conservative approach to government in a way that appeals to their sense of fairness far more than lazy slogans like “big government sucks.”

Some of what I’m about to say may sound like a restating of things “people should already know,” to which I can only reply with G.K. Chesterton’s quip: “I believe in preaching to the converted; for I have generally found that the converted do not understand their own religion.”

The Pew question leaves no room for nuance: You are either in favor of government acting or you are not. This is fine if you are a staunch progressive or libertarian, but that is not the general conservative view. Conservatives support government to ensure the protection of life, liberty, and property of the country’s citizens, as well as “good order” as it is defined by the society in question. Furthermore, even the libertarian wings on the right such as Hayek and Friedman are not against the idea of government providing a backstop or cushion at the bottom of society to aid people and even give them a “hand up” so that they can live a less precarious existence.

But conservatives are deeply suspicious of government, especially democratic government, given as it is to passion and sometimes even mob thinking rather than careful reason. Besides, all governments are run by people, and people do not suddenly become less prone to error or even malice just because they wear a badge or work in a government office.

Conservatives also knowor should knowthat debates about private or government solutions to problems, or even between different government solutions to problems are always between imperfect options with their own unique flaws. The question is never whether there is a perfect solution in the offing for any given problem, but rather which solution is the least bad.

So the question of whether government should “help” on any given problem, assuming this is a problem that needs its intervention, would need to pass through three tests for a conservative to say “yes.”

The first is prescription. This is a principle made famous by Edmund Burke when he criticized French Revolutionaries’ tendency to chuck anything they found didn’t meet their own rigid test of reason. Simply put, human societyany human societyis an infinitely complex web of arrangements, friendships, codes, mores, and rules. Whether over a few generations or several, these things are developed based on a logic, however imperfect, that “works” for that community or society. As such, it gets the benefit of the doubt whenever we come to try and change it through private action and especially through government coercion.

The late sociologist Nathan Glazer put it best, when he explained the cost of government programs meant to help poorer communities, with all the best intentions in the world, but with the following results:

“the simple reality that every piece of social policy substitutes for some traditional arrangement, whether good or bad, a new arrangement in which public authorities take over, at least in part, the role of the family, of the ethnic and neighborhood group, of voluntary associations.”

In other words, sometimes an intervention might indeed be needed, but it always comes with a serious cost. Therefore, before we go and demolish what looks from the outside like a decrepit building, we need to understand its contents and think about the good we might be destroying. It should stand until we have compelling reason to knock it down.

Furthermore, the conservative would wonder whether or not there are private, voluntary arrangements that might help  a community to deal with the problem that do not involve the heavy hand of government, even if (necessarily) imperfectly. I am not just referring to free market initiatives, as important as they are, but also family, community, and even general local efforts.

As an aside, conservatives would do well to practice and demonstrate what they preach when it comes to voluntary efforts and community building separate from government. “They’ll manage, people always have” or “the market will find a way” may or may not be true in every case, but it comes off as callous and even marks out the conservative as always saying “this is someone else’s problem.” Better to say “what can we do to help?” if possible.

Getting back to our topic: Let’s say that you’ve considered the prescription principle, and that you still think the problem is pressing enough that government is needed to solve the problem. The next test which your idea must meet is often called subsidiarity or federalism, the idea that government should handle things at its lowest possible levelcity/county, state, and then federal.

Sometimes conservatives talk about federalism as almost a magical formula bereft of meaning outside of abstract theory, and like “free markets” or “voluntary action” can lead non-conservatives to think that conservatives care more about rigid ideological dogma than pragmatism or actual people.

But there are actually very good practical reasons to support this principle.

For starters, as Hayek famously noted, knowledge is always diffuse, and local people have a command of knowledge of their own conditions that no centralized government in D.C. can really grasp. The local government, composed of those same people, would therefore be much better placed to understand their own needs and how to deal with them. Rather than a one-size-fits-all solution conceived in one place to be forced on all places, let each locality take the principles you advance and see how best to implement them in their unique circumstances.

In addition, the smaller the government, the more your vote and your voice counts, especially given the often low participation rate in smaller elections. Your voice and that of your neighbors might not be heard at all when competing with more than 100 million other American voters’ concerns in D.C., but it sure as heck will be heard in an election for sheriff or alderman. This is a good way to make a difference in your own community.

Besides, many of the issues that most concern Americans are due to policies determined at the state and local levels. Housing, occupational licensing, issues of police abuse and misconduct or overincarceration are all matters largely determined by or at the local or state level. If anything, focusing on solving problems at those levels is the practical way to go.

Last and perhaps least edifyingly for all of us who want to help, federalism helps contain the damage of policies that turn out to be bad. If the solution you advance turns out to be a flop, then it will at most have been a failure in only one neighborhood or city or state. But a mistake at the federal level means bad results for tens of millions. Furthermore, reversing that mistake at the federal level will also be a lot harder than it will at the lower levels.

Which brings us to the final test which the idea must pass: prudence.

Anyone creating a tool for government to use needs to view it in the same way you would view a weapon: With great care and caution. People on both the left and right have often used the metaphor of “war” to describe their policycrusade reallyto rid the world of a particular problem they have identified: a war on poverty, a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on corruption, and so on.

This is actually quite an apt metaphor, since wareven when absolutely necessaryis destructive by definition. It means the tearing down of rules, of structures, of institutions. Anything to get after the devil of the day. And when the war is ended, whether successful or not, the people are left to deal with the wreckage.

There are certainly times when government efforts have been laudatoryvaccination campaigns, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and so on. But there are many where the crusade did far more harm than good. It destroyed many poor but organic neighborhoods in the name of “slum clearance,”  justified and still justifies the repeated theft of civilian property in the name of fighting drugs, and undermines the basic right of people to due process in the name of fighting the very real problem of sexual assault.

Advocates of a policy meant to help people with a given need  consider just how far they are willing to go – or to be blunter: how much they are willing to willfully destroyin order to bring about the positive result they wish. From the get-go, there should be real red lines in the name of prudence that one agrees should not be crossed.

I return to the original question at the top of the essay: “Should government do more to help people?” The instinctive answer of the progressive will be “Yes.” The response of the libertarian will be just as instinctively “No.” But the conservative’s response will be the sort that doesn’t fit in a poll: “It depends. Does it pass the three tests?”

Avi Woolf

Avi Woolf is an editor and translator residing in Israel. His Twitter handle is @AviWoolf.