Against grand bargains

Conservatives here are, as is so often the case, at a structural disadvantage: It is far easier to create, for example, a massive new health-care entitlement than to take one away, or even to achieve meaningful reform of one. The country will have its conservative moments — it is having one now — but it also will have its moments of infatuation with the welfare state and the almighty government check. From Woodrow Wilson onward, the pattern of our history has been that the Left can get more done during its moments — the income tax, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare — than the Right can undo during its moments. That explains both the creeping statism of the 20th and now the 21st century, and the conservative dream of achieving dramatic reversals through campaigns such as the Contract with America or by exploiting legislative leverage as in the debt-ceiling episode. It does not help that Republicans sometimes create massive new entitlements of their own or engage in irresponsible fiscal shenanigans inspired by loopy economic theories.

Another way of saying this is that conservatism is by nature defensive, preserving that which should be preserved, resisting what Thomas Sowell describes as the impulse to replace what works with what sounds good. We are the constant gardeners of politics. The Left is more on the lines of King Ludwig II, looking to build a new Neuschwanstein before the mortar is even dry on last year’s model. The problem is that what sounds good often sounds really, really good: “Hey, Obama’s going to lower my monthly insurance premium! Hurrah!” A businesswoman of my acquaintance recently shared the fact that her premium will be going up by about $800 a month to pay for the new ACA-compliant benefits package that she does not want but under the law must have. When she complained, a perplexed friend asked her: “Don’t you qualify for subsidies?” And that’s the challenge in a nutshell: Just as Obamacare is a terrible program, Social Security and Medicare are terrible deals for those of us not born in the 1950s or earlier, but woe unto him who tries to reform them.