E.J. Dionne writes up two books by heterodox conservatives — David Frum’s Comeback and Grand New Party by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam — in his latest column. (I reviewed Frum’s book on the main site; I included the Douthat-Salam book in a recent discussion of similar books in the print edition of TAS.) I’m sympathetic to the project of making conservative domestic policy more relevant to the problems that actually concern that electorate today. I even agree with some of the policy prescriptions laid out by these three authors. But Dionne’s column illustrates the peril of getting too close to big government conservatism, as I fear Frum, Douthat, and Salam often do.
“On policy,” Dionne writes, “the books are less persuasive, partly because conservatism, almost by definition, has trouble achieving the level of intervention in the economy that the current inequities may require.” Once you accept certain liberal premises about government and economics, and once you cease to view limiting government as a central conservative task in itself, and once you deemphasize the various ways government causes economic anxieties, you enter into a bidding war with liberals you cannot possibly win. Liberals can always promise a more expensive and more activist government than anything a conservative can offer. And liberals are only going to give you so much credit for trying to meet them halfway.
That isn’t to say that we should oppose government intervention regardless of the merits. But neither should conservatives labor under the illusion that we can simply throw a few big government bones to the electorate and solve our political problems.