When Republicans in Congress decided they could not repeal the universal-coverage feature of Obamacare, they effectively conceded that the ideology of economic redistribution was going to shape America’s future.
This egalitarian victory is by no means set in stone. However, in order to mount a challenge worthy of their opponents, conservatives and libertarians will have to revisit the ideological foundations of their political project. Viewing the botched repeal effort in the rearview mirror, it looks more and more like the product of political tactics and street-level short-term thinking than the end of conservatism as a stand-alone force in American politics.
The question facing Republicans is nonetheless ideological. By allowing their ideological opposition to secure, for posterity, such a major victory as the universal-coverage feature, Republicans have signaled a lack of faith in their own ideological foundation. Even if ideology was not their main motive for accepting the core feature of Obamacare, Republicans did demonstrate that they were unable to let ideology exercise due influence over their decision making.
When tactics trump principles, politics is reduced to administrative governance. In one form or another, policy making should always be informed by ideological principles. Therefore, to find their footing again after their botched repeal effort, Republicans need to have a candid ideological conversation.
The problem is clear. Their failure in front of the universal-coverage idea may have been practical and tactical in nature, but its motivation runs deeper. It has to do with the fact that Republicans are ill equipped, ideologically, to deal with the welfare state.
Built on egalitarian principles since the start of the War on Poverty, the welfare state is a reality, economically and politically. This causes frustration among some purists. In the Fall 2017 issue of the Objective Standard, Harry Binswanger, board member of the Ayn Rand Institute, opines:
The failure of Republicans to repeal Obamacare – despite public support for repealing it – marks yet another large-scale demonstration of how morality, not lobbying or machinations or economic arguments, controls government policy. And it’s the morality of altruism, tragically, that’s thwarted Republicans again.
Others take a more measured approach, recognizing the tension between individualism and statism. Some even suggest that the success of the United States, in terms of politics, economics, and social advancement, is attributable to an interdependency between individualism and statism. Writing in the Fall 2017 issue of the Hedgehog Review, Patrick Deneen, a political scientist with Notre Dame University, contends that in the American experiment there is no division between liberty and equality, or conservatism and statism, is outdated:
The insistent demand that we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of the state’s efforts to redress injustices masks the reality that the two grow constantly and necessarily together: Statism enables individualism; individualism demands statism.
This battle, Deneen suggests, is not even a battle between two opposite ideologies, but a battle between two sides of liberalism: classical versus progressive. Inextricably tied together, his reasoning continues, the individual and the state need each other to thrive.
At the theoretical level, this might be an interesting argument. In practice, however, any state beyond the minimal boundaries placed upon it by Robert Nozick and John Locke, among others, is a state that encroaches on individual freedom. Doing so in the name of egalitarianism and economic redistribution, the state increasingly forces some citizens to act not by their own free will, but by demands (taxes) imposed by government.
Yet Deneen points to the complexity of the modern American economy, and the practical problem that this complexity presents for modern conservatives. Unlike Binswanger’s purist approach, which implies the immediate shutdown of the welfare state (ostensibly starting with the complete repeal of Obamacare), Deneen recognizes that the problems facing Republicans in Congress may not be as simplistic after all.
If the individual and the state are, in fact, closely tied together, then perhaps the ideological conversation needs to take a new route, one that cuts between the equally unrepentant libertarian and egalitarian camps. Maybe this third route can share the same goal as the libertarian camp, but be informed by egalitarianism in its methods for getting there?
Image: Fibonacci Blue.