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One-Nation Conservatism: The Case for the Reformocons

In his latest book, How to Be a Conservative, philosopher Roger Scruton argues that we are entering an age in which powerful actors externalize their costs more and more onto future generations for the sake of benefits only in the present. The result is a corporate “predation on future generations in which we too are involved.”

Scruton mentions that “the best hope” is “the emergence of a new form of conservatism,” the philosophy of which is similar to “the feudal principle” of 19th century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. According to the feudal principle, property is not just a right but also a duty: If you own a piece of land, it is your duty to take care of it such that it may be useful for future generations. Disraeli held his feudal principle as part of his overall vision of “One Nation Toryism,” a program that sought to extend the benefits of social membership to working class men and families facing the excesses and abuses of the Industrial Revolution. It was a conservatism that saw the nation as Edmund Burke did—a trust built on the implicit knowledge of civil societal institutions (traditions, customs, families, churches, markets) and whose members included the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be-born.

Scruton continues that this new conservatism “would be concerned to defend private property against those who abuse it, and to secure the freedom of the present generation without cost to the next.” This movement “would present to the people of the Western democracies a model of responsible business, in which small initiatives, responsible accounting, and local ties are given the place that they deserve” as the center of public policy. This conservatism would be holistic in its conservationist principles for preserving our shared societal inheritances. The main principles of conservatism—e.g. that good things are more easily destroyed than created—have remained relatively constant in the English-speaking west since their beginning in the years following the French Revolution. The application of those principles, however, may vary given different contexts. As Russell Kirk writes, “Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.” Currently, our society faces a crisis of cultural inequality that must be met by a new political-right movement. I find that the answer to Scruton’s call comes in the form of the new movement popularly dubbed “Reform Conservatism.”

Reform Conservatism, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says, is “a vision of domestic policy that would overhaul the tax code and safety net to support work, family and upward mobility.” It consists of individuals from Yuval Levin to Ramesh Ponnuru, Douthat, and others. The movement arises as a reaction to what is a current philosophical vacuum on the political right given that the still-recommended policies and rhetoric of the Reagan era no longer apply to new American contexts. Cutting the upper marginal tax rate does not solve some of our most pressing problems, such as the breakdown of the family and its economic effects on a shrinking middle class. Contrary to current tax regime, the “Reformocons” propose a domestic policy agenda that makes getting married and having children economically affordable due to greater marriage and child tax credits. Numerous proposals on other fronts from this movement have made the Times ask, “Can the GOP be a party of ideas?” More intact, stable families with the necessary economic means center this agenda. Reformocons want the GOP to be a party with concrete ideas that make it a friend to families when the political right and left have not been discussing, for instance, our country’s retreat from real marriage.

Sociologist Brad Wilcox summarizes, “the nation’s retreat from marriage is linked to growing family inequality, male joblessness, and economic stagnation, especially among the ranks of less-educated Americans.” Part of a larger cultural fracturing, family breakdown affects mostly ethnic minorities and the white underclass, increasing economic inequality, stagnation, and decreasing social mobility. Right now it is more difficult for Americans to achieve the formal pattern of getting a job, marrying, and having children in that order. This movement is not trying to solve all the crises created by cultural licentiousness and excesses of big government and big business. Public policy will not fix the marriage culture, but it can make such a fix much easier by restructuring the government’s policies to incentivize the growth of stable families. The “reformocon” response is not to increase the state apparatus and make individuals more dependent upon the administrative welfare state and less on already eroding autonomous institutions. Rather, as Levin points out in his recent book on Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, The Great Debate, the political task is “to create and constantly sustain a space in which the people may exercise their freedom and enjoy the benefits of life in society.” Reformocons desire to update the mechanisms of the state to encourage more stable families, not subsidize their breakdown.

For example, as Republicans propose policies as if we still lived in the 1980s, the welfare state still runs as if we lived in the 1960s. As described by many contributions to the recent anthology of Reform Conservative ideas, Room to Grow, the administrative welfare state continues outdated policies that usurp powers belonging to civil society. Thus, it predates on future generations. Current Room to Grow proposals include affordable market-based alternatives to the Affordable Care Act, converting anti-poverty programs into universal tax credit, and better secondary and primary education opportunity for the young. Obviously the content of these proposals must be debated more by the right and left. However, they indicate a real agenda to reform government mechanisms so as to not predate on future generations, but to make them a worthy inheritance.

Likewise, statecraft has a rightful place in community formation—not as the maker of institutions of civil society but as the maker of the possibility for such institutions to flourish. Statecraft is soulcraft. Right now there is breakdown of common civic culture between economic classes. We face what Charles Murray calls a “cultural inequality” between a new upper class “with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America,” and a new lower class characterized by a “withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions” such as churches, schools, bowling clubs, and especially marriage. Any relevant and moral-minded politics cannot remain blinded to this institutional injustice. Conservatism is fundamentally a view of government deriving from a prior view of an expansive civil society. Likewise, Reform Conservatism calls upon the intellectual resources of traditional thought (as Levin has called upon Burke in The Great Debate) to refurnish conservative philosophy as fashioned primarily about the state of civil society. Reformocons provide a holistic account holding that our social nature continues despite technocratic or libertarian individualism devoid of interpersonal responsibility. They seek the prudential means to turn the tides against excessive individualism and statism for greater civic unity.

Seeking to extend the benefits of national social membership to the living and to sow those benefits for those yet to come, it is the beginning of a politics that incentivize the current generation to consider its duties in civil society and that makes it more economically feasible to do so. It is maybe the best hope for policy reform that the political right and left can have. In other words, the rise of the Reformocons is an opportunity for a one-nation conservatism.


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  • LawProf61

    Slapping a “reform” label on a political philosophy doesn’t change anything. The “retreat from marriage” and acceptance of sexual license is cultural, not political. Nor is it news, as conservatives have been warning of its impact on societal collapse – and then watching it, shaking our heads – for 50 years. A more responsive tax code won’t prompt people to marry, wait for marriage to have children, or stay married. Other cultural forces must step up to the plate and call for change – the same ones that drove “The Sexual Revolution” in the first place: Hollywood, the media, academics. Expecting government to “fix” it just buys in to the Left’s shtick that government must do EVERYTHING; a fact made more pressing by the erosion of the very values they themselves have – more or less successfully – attacked.

    • Tom Leith

      I don’t think there’s such a neat separation between the “cultural” and the “political”.

  • As I read this account of conservative compassion for the excluded, and their purported remorse for the past generation of laissez-faire, I kind of felt the ghost of Charles Murray lurking in the background. And there he is, as the role model… Compassion for excluded? More like an old product with an expensive repackaging job….

    Let’s face it, dismantling welfare in favor of missiles and bombs and corporate tax breaks, was taken care of in 1996, and was a direct result of Murray’s The Bell Curve of 1994. The central thesis of The Bell Curve was anti-life, determinist, Malthusian, e.g. lower classes were inherently inferior according to IQ testing, and therefore the government should stop wasting resources on them. A sample from the book:

    “The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended.”

    Surely most Americans already know the scent of these fellers and their prescriptions for societal euthanasia. There is no rebuild of community, except within each community. This is the true conservatism.

  • quisutDeusmpc

    First I’m hearing of the “Reformocons”. The policy proposals reminded me of a post-Reagan missed opportunity with Jack Kemp. He proposed the same type of policies meant to bolster the middle class and was made a pariah. If he had been elected “conservatives” would have been ahead of “The Bell Curve”. Still, happy to see a refocus on Frank Capra’s America. Recently came across Tom Wehrner’s “Heroic Conservatism”. This reminds me of that as well. Perhaps Eric Cantor or Jeb Bush would be willing to hoist this banner and run on it?