Sometimes even canned political pronouncments are revealing. Here is Health and Human Services Secretary Richard S. Schweiker announcing the administration's Social Security package:
"We will stand by the traditional retirement age of 65. We will not change it."
What is jarring about this statement is that the retirement age of 65 hasn't been "traditional" for at least a decade. Congress allowed women to receive benefits as early as 62 in 1956 and extended the same opportunity to men in 1961. In 1979, 64 percent of all Social Security beneficiaries took retirement before age 65.
There is more to this than nitpicking. A central job of the Reagan administration is to develop a sensible conservatism, but there are tell-tale signs -- that its conservatism is of the meat-ax variety. At times, cutting spending, taxes and regulations seem to have become virtues unto themselves.
A true philosophy of governing needs to go deeper. The best conservative tradition promotes personal freedom, individual responsibility and social stability. Its bias against using government as an aggressive agent of social change reflects temperamental cautiousness and intellectual skepticism.
Government ought, in this view, to serve as a protector of last resort. Use it too often to do too many things, and you undermine its effectiveness. Its energies get spread too thin, its purposes become confused and public confidence erodes.
A government that tries to undo the past (including its own actions) too fast unsettles the public. A government seen to use its powers to serve narrow interests destroys the sense of impartiality and even-handedness needed to maintain public confidence. Such distinctions sometimes seem lost on the Reagan administration.
The social Security package is an apt example. To reduce spending, the administration proposed that "early retirement" benefits be cut drastically. Today, someone retiring at age 62 can receive 80 percent of the "normal" benefits that go to those who retire at 65. The Reagan proposal would cut this to 55 percent. Benefits for those retiring at 65 and 64 would be similarly scaled back.
This may not strike you as an enhancement of personal freedom, an increase in individual choice or a lessening of government intrusion into people's lives. It isn't. Somebody in Washington decided it was good for people to work at age 62 but okay for them to retire at 65. Nor does it respect custom: wthe reality that many people's planning assumed earlier benefits.
Governing, of course, means making difficult and distasteful decisions, but a conservative government, ought to be making changes in the least disruptive ways. If Social Security spending is to be cut, the trick is to do it in the gentlest way.
Don't skew the tax system against early retirement. If benefits are to be reduced, reduce them down the line. Let individuals, not government accountants, decide when they prefer to take their benefits. Those who want the higher benefits will work a bit longer; those who value their leisure or have other income may get out sooner.
There are other examples of slips from a sensible conservatism.
When the administration pressured the Japanese into accepting "voluntary" restricitions on autos, it did more than sully its advocacy of free trade. It used its enormous powers for the special interests of the United Auto Workers and the auto manufacturers: the creatures of the wage-price spiral that has kept the industry in depression. In effect, the administration rewarded this irresponsibility.
Or consider tax cuts. The administration loudly advocates across-the-board cuts. In fact, however, people in the lowest brackets wouldn't receive proportional cuts. In preparing its tax package, the administration chose to ignore a detail called the "earned income tax credit." This generally lowers taxes for couples with children and up to $10,000 in income. By not adjusting it, the administration's proposal is less generous to those low-income taxpayers.
Mere quibbles? Perhaps. But details matter and, as time passes, they will matter more. Reagan's honeymoon has been prolonged by his own powerful presence and the sympathy generated by the attempt against his life. But honeymoons don't last forever, and when this one fades, people will begin noticing the inconsistencies.
Now government can be perfectly consistent. The interests to be satisfied and the pressures to be balanced are simply too great. But every government needs to project a sense of purpose and principle that gives coherence to its policies. Jimmy Carter's inability to do this lay at the root of his political failure.
Despite Reagan's popularity -- or perhaps because of it -- his administration has yet to come to grips with this problem. The president has shown enormous political skills, focusing single-mindedly on the budget battle and refusing to be diverted to other issues. He operates on the sensible theory that nothing succeeds like success.
But there are inherent limits to the political value of cutting, spending, taxes and regulations. At some point, people tire of watching the surgery and demand results. Will reduced spending, tight money and tax cuts automatically produce the economic improvement the administration envisions?
If not, the need for a broader governing philosphy becomes all the greater. America's 20th Century politics has rembled in cycles. The uses of government largely reflect public dissatisfaction with the economic order. Perceived private failures prompt government activism, which leads to perceived government failures, and reaction. A new turn in the cycle is just beginning. How long it lasts depends heavily on Reagan's brand of conservatism.