Andrew Sullivan writes, “Conservatism is not, to my mind, about solving problems, which is why it remains a very problematic governing philosophy for modern Americans. It is about a modesty toward what problems government can ever solve.” Sullivan is absolutely right that this is, or ought to be, a valid description of the conservative mindset or conservatism as a temperament. This is something putative conservatives have forgotten to our detriment. But that doesn’t necessarily tell us what people who have a conservative temperament should do when engaged in electoral politics or governing. If a group is involved in these two tasks, it must put together coalitions that can win elections and it must be up to the job of doing the work of government.
So while I’m tempted to agree with Sullivan when he writes, “For conservatism to copy liberalism by always seeking ‘solutions’ to problems and convincing ‘the right coalitions’ of people to look to government for the satisfaction of their needs would be a mistake in my view,” that cannot be the approach of conservatives who actually get involved with politics and government rather than writing and blogging. Maybe “solutions” is the wrong word for what government can provide, but people who are going to participate in politics and government have to, well, campaign and govern effectively despite having a more limited view of what politics and government can realistically accomplish. Even if you believe government is usually the problem rather than the solution, you have to have a political strategy to contain government, a social base that will support you, and an agenda by which you can pursue policies to limit government.
UPDATE: Yuval Levin adds some thoughts. I should add that I don’t think conservatism properly understood denies that politics can be used to solve problems — conservatism just understands the scope of what politics can solve to be limited and prefers modesty in the proposed solutions.