By the time this column appears, predictions and counter-predictions (plus the predictions about nobody knowing what they’re predicting) will have reached a fever pitch. Surely we all know by now how we’re going to vote, and we know what the candidates have been saying: “Failed policies of the past” and “Five trillion in tax cuts” on one side and “American exceptionalism” and “Freeing up business and innovation” on the other—blah, blah, blah.
On Oct. 24, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan gave a speech in Cleveland that goes beyond catchphrases. In it, he framed the moral case for limited government—not just economic success but social cohesion and homegrown tolerance for differences. Those who like to characterize Ryan as a cold-hearted Ayn Randian forget he’s also a devout member of a church that has historically devoted huge resources to ministry among the poor. His speech came as close to political philosophy as any given by a politician in the last decade or so: “Mitt Romney and I are running because we believe that Americans are better off in a dynamic, free-enterprise-based economy that fosters economic growth, opportunity, and upward mobility,” the alternative being a top-down economy that strangles personal initiative.
He went on to outline how 50 years of steady growth in the federal government has torn apart families and neighborhoods and replaced upward mobility with static dependency. With few exceptions, the America of the past had no poverty class, but today people remain poor, both materially and spiritually, for generations. The welfare reform of the late 1990s began to reverse that trend, but leaden bureaucracy is dragging it back again, “We’re still trying to measure compassion how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty,” Ryan said. What’s moral about that?
“In this war on poverty [a reference to LBJ’s euphemism for a massive increase in federal programs], poverty is winning.” To reverse that trend, Ryan rejected the stereotype Democrats have of the Republican vision: a Darwinian jungle of every man for himself. Rather, he pointed out the social network of towns, churches, private charities, friends and neighbors, family—“a vast middle ground between the government and the individual,” where neighbors see needs and respond to them personally by setting up a food bank or building a shelter. “What’s really at work here is the spirit of the Lord, and there is no end to the good it can inspire,” Ryan said.
That vast middle ground is the territory big, impersonal government erodes, and one a Romney/Ryan administration proposes to reclaim. Exactly how they would do that is unclear, but Ryan hinted at a restructuring of federal aid to be dispensed in block grants for local administrators, rather than top down with strings attached. The education system must be opened up to offer more choices for parents, and federal regulations must be drastically cut back to allow small businesses to thrive.
“Good luck with that,” the cynical among us may sneer. Many an idealistic expectation has come to grief on the rocky shores of entrenched bureaucracy. But Ryan isn’t proposing to make the sea levels recede or fundamentally change America, only to steer the country back toward the best of the America we knew.