It's Ideas, Stupid!

November 13, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The election confirmed the axiom that people are inclined to believe in the truth of ideas that they see strongly believed. The election results are consequences of the wholesome contagion of conservative ideas. Times have changed indeed.

Today, as usual, conservatism for most people is less a creed than a climate of opinion. However, what is happening is a restoration of an idea. What is being revived is the pre-New Deal tradition of American politics.

The New Deal was made possible by a more sanguine attitude about the central government. That attitude was presaged by this change: 11 of the Constitution's first 12 Amendments restricted the federal government, but six of the next seven enlarged federal powers. Still, from the founding until the 1930s the American premise was that the function of government was to provide the conditions in which happiness can be pursued -- ordered liberty -- but not to provide happiness itself.

Since the New Deal the government has been more ambitious. But Americans are not happy.

Politics is driven by competing worries. Today conservatives are more radically distressed than liberals are by conditions in government and the culture. Liberals still express their worries in an essentially 1930s vocabulary of distributive justice, understood in economic terms. This assumes a reassuringly banal politics of splittable differences -- how much concrete to pour, how many crops to subsidize by how much, which groups shall get what.

Conservatives worry in a more contemporary vocabulary, questioning the power and ambitions of the post-New Deal state, and finding a causal connection between those ambitions and the fraying of the culture. Conservatives believe government's principal functions are the preservation of freedom and removal of restraints on the individual.

Liberalism's ascent in the first two-thirds of this century reflected the new belief that government should also confer capacities on individuals. Liberalism's decline in the final third of this century has reflected doubts about whether government can be good at that, or whether government that is good at that is good for the nation's character.

One count in conservatism's indictment of liberalism is that liberalism takes too much for granted, including those habits -- thrift, industriousness, deferral of gratifications -- which make free societies succeed. Conservatives worry that the severest cost of solicitous government is not monetary but moral. This cost is diminution of personal responsibility and private forms of social provision.

This worry has a distinguished pedigree. Tocqueville warned of a soft despotism that ''makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his faculties.''

The 1994 election was a large step away from an essentially European idea of the state, an idea incorporated into 20th-century liberalism. Rejecting that idea involves reaffirming an underlying principle of federalism, the principle of ''subsidiarity.'' That principle is that none of the polity's tasks should be assigned to a body larger than the smallest that can satisfactorily perform it.

The first business of the next Congress, the balanced-budget pTC constitutional amendment, will promote, even compel subsidiarity. This is because as entitlements devour the federal budget, the central government will have a steadily shrinking sphere of discretion, so powers should devolve from Washington to lower governments. Furthermore, next year Congress, prompted by governors, may begin seriously attacking unfunded mandates, by which the federal government has forced state and local governments to work the federal government's will without receiving federal funding.

Suddenly ideas for strengthening society by relimiting government are bursting out all over. Rep. Chris Cox, a California Republican, says that after 40 years of Democratic control the committee structure of the House of Representatives bears no significant relationship to Republican objectives.

A committee that he says should be ''radically redesigned and renamed'' is the ''Education and Labor Committee.'' After all, over 90 percent of American workers are not unionized, and local control of education -- subsidiarity again -- is threatened by federal encroachments. Mr. Cox also proposes two new committees: Committee on Law Revision and Repeal, and Committee on Deregulation and Privatization.

Such practical measures arise from the most practical things -- ideas which, being strongly believed by a few, become part of the climate of opinion.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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