Among the sharpest analysts of contemporary conservatism and its pathologies is the American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olsen—a long-time friend, generous and understanding ex-boss, election analyst and poll expert extraordinaire. Some time ago, I discussed his views here. In his latest talk here, Henry renews his call for a return to Reagan-esque values and rhetoric—less burble about entrepreneurs and marginal tax rates on capital gains, and more concern for the common man; less libertarian theorizing, and more recognition of the fact that folks who fall on hard times may need a (government) hand up, though never a handout. For various reasons (the disintegration of the family, the dynamics of the “information society,” etc.), I worry that this agenda has lost much of the appeal it had three decades ago. Still, there’s much in Henry’s talk that I agree with, at some level of abstraction. Then comes this:
The sense that the average person has a moral life that is worth leading and pursuing—and sometimes needs government to help them on their way and keep them from falling—is central to American political identity but disconnected from much of conservative thought today. And the Obama campaign ran against this disconnection relentlessly.
Think about the contraceptive question. The question of whether or not to mandate religious employers to cover contraceptives was a classic wedge issue: one designed to raise precisely that point among single women and other people who were concerned that their ability to succeed in modern America was imperiled if they could not control their own bodies. …
There are many people who will look and say, “If you’re with the priest, you’re not with me. If you’re with the religious entities, you’re not with me.” Democrats harnessed this issue in a manner that was very calculated. They were running and saying, “You know you need to control your body. Republicans not only are opposed to abortion, but they don’t even want you to get contraception.”
Where to begin? Maybe at the top: contraceptives aren’t for people who want to “control their own bodies.” They’re for people who can’t or don’t want to do so because they think that sex is a ton more fun than self-control.
That’s obviously true. What’s not at all obvious is why other people should pay for the fun. That question ought to impress itself all around—on believers, agnostics, atheists, and folks who just plain hate clerics; on anyone who has the slightest comprehension of insurance markets; on anyone who suspects that making some people pay for other people’s fun is neither fair nor a viable social principle; and on anyone who suspects that, inasmuch as this kerfuffle can’t possibly be about a $2 condom, it has to be about something else—most likely, a creepy campaign to cram a postmodern mentality down everyone’s throats.
Nor is it clear what this has to do with a government that occasionally lends a hand to deserving individuals in distress. For all those who need a condom to “keep them from falling,” as well as those whose “ability to succeed in modern America [is] imperiled” for want of a rubber, here’s my crude, heartless, I’ve-got-mine-Jack advice: pursue your dreams and buy one. We are not talking about paraplegic orphans. We are talking about Georgetown law students—the most privileged members of our society, who are training for their future calling (government, or hanging on to it) by haranguing us: you owe us.
I don’t suggest for a moment that Henry actually believes this claptrap. The point, which I think he underestimates, is that a country that doesn’t simply laugh the “free condoms” crowd out of town—without need of explanation—is in serious trouble. The very fact that clever pols can turn this no-brainer into a “wedge issue” makes you wonder about the reservoir of good sense out there.
Maybe conservatism has become disconnected from the thought that “the average person has a moral life that is worth leading and pursuing,” and maybe it neglects or slights the fact that government can at times foster that pursuit. But even if so, that ain’t the major problem. The contemporary transfer state is not about moral worth and aspirations. The administration’s “Julia” had no aspirations and no coherent plan of life, and the government in her story had no objective beyond assuring her that whichever way she might drift or be tossed, there’ll be a government program. To put the point in a sentence: while one can perhaps imagine a government that would help “average” people to realize their transcendent hopes and aspirations, our actual government is designed to wring any meaning out of life. The cheap, nasty free condom campaign encapsulates that agenda.
Henry Olsen is searching for a distinction between a hand up and a handout—between the uplifting and the tawdry, the compassionate and the grasping. But that’s hard to articulate even on paper, and harder still to observe in practice. And against it stands liberalism’s limitless, all-encompassing ethos: If I can’t have my condom, you might as well kill widows and orphans. If conservatism and the GOP often seem disconnected from “average persons” and their need, in distress, for government help, maybe that’s because they sense that before you can explain the needed distinctions, you have to explain that enough is enough and indeed, altogether too much. That strikes me as the right impulse. The hard question is whether even that much, or that little, can still be explained.