Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is known mainly as a hard-line conservative on everything from taxes to guns to gay marriage. On Monday at the Heritage Foundation, however, he delivered a thoughtful lecture on conservatism’s shortcomings, including a call to tell voters what conservatives are for (not just against) and to recapture “words like ‘together,’ ‘compassion,’ and ‘community.'”

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) at 2012 CPAC-Win McNamee / Getty Images

He explained:

Collective action doesn’t only — or even usually — mean government action. Conservatives cannot surrender the idea of community to the Left, when it is the vitality of our communities upon which our entire philosophy depends. Nor can we allow one politician’s occasional conflation of “compassion” and “bigger government” to discourage us from emphasizing the moral core of our worldview. Conservatism is ultimately not about the bills we want to pass, but the nation we want to be.

He went on to describe the need to explain what that conservative vision looks like. (“Our vision of American freedom is of two separate but mutually reinforcing institutions: a free enterprise economy and a voluntary civil society.”) He contrasts that with the top-down, government-centric vision in which government pits one group against another for limited spoils.

The trick, however, is how this translates into public policy for conservatives who want to govern. Lee suggests the outlines of a policy agenda:

What reforms will make it easier for entrepreneurs to start new businesses? For young couples to get married and start new families? And for individuals everywhere to come together to bring to life flourishing new partnerships and communities? What should government do – and just as important, not do – to allow the free market to create new economic opportunity and to allow civil society to create new social capital?

We conservatives are not against government. The free market and civil society depend on a just, transparent, and accountable government to enforce the rule of law.

What we are against are two pervasive problems that grow on government like mold on perfectly good bread: corruption and inefficiency.

He urges that the core of this must be to root out those aspects of government that perpetuate inequality. (“We have venture SOCIALISM: politicians funneling taxpayer money to politically correct businesses that cannot attract real investors. We have regulatory capture: industry leaders influencing the rules governing their sectors to protect their interests and hamstringing innovative challengers.”) He adds in a heavy dose of federalism. (“The price of allowing conservative states to be conservative is allowing liberal states to be liberal. . . . [W]e must make this fundamental principle of pluralistic diversity a pillar of our agenda.”) And then he lays out the core of what Republican governance should be:

Once the federal government stops doing things it shouldn’t, it can start doing the things it should, better. That means national defense and intelligence, federal law enforcement and the courts, immigration, intellectual property, and even the senior entitlement programs whose fiscal outlook threatens our future solvency and very survival. Once we clear unessential policies from the books, federal politicians will no longer be able to hide: from the public, or their constitutional responsibilities. Congress will be forced to work together to reform the problems government has created in our health care system.

We can fundamentally reform and modernize our regulatory system. We will be forced to rescue our senior entitlement programs from bankruptcy. And we can reform our tax system to eliminate the corporate code’s bias in favor of big businesses over small businesses and the individual code’s bias against saving, investing, and especially against parents, our ultimate investor class. That is how we turn the federal government’s unsustainable liabilities into sustainable assets.

His message may strike some as “unconservative,” but that is only because the current crop of right-leaning pundits and pols too often have distorted the real meaning of conservativism and taken up bellicose and negative language, while suggesting that government is our biggest threat. Lee’s serious discussion should be welcomed in the GOP, and he joins others, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and GOP governors as well as American Enterprise Institute’s chief Arthur Brooks (who stresses the moral case for capitalism) and other conservative heavy-weight thinkers, in trying to redirect conservatives toward governmental reform, improving the quality of life for the poor and middle class and tolerance (which Lee deals with in the context of federalism).

The next step is to put his vision into concrete terms. What sort of tax code does he favor? What kind of immigration reform would he support? If the answer is just more of the same (mostly “no” on every viable compromise), he’ll lose support and interest quickly. But if he attempts to apply conservative principles in ways designed to encourage mobility, community and equality of opportunity, he’ll be onto something.