Gov. Chris Christie has backed legal reform in New Jersey, specifically to set up drug courts that will deal with nonviolent offenders and require treatment for their addiction. He memorably said that it made no sense to put addicts in jail since they will only come out as addicts. At a recent town hall he said, “We’re not going to eradicate the drug problem, but every life we save is a life that’s worthwhile. There’s no life that’s disposable. None of these young people, or older folks who get involved in this mess, are disposable.”

Reforming drug laws doesn’t mean legalizing drugs, as he told a caller on a New Jersey radio show:

That strikes me as precisely the right position for reform-minded conservatives and points to a philosophical divide with libertarians, who see drug use as a matter of personal freedom. Christie is articulating the view that the state has a responsibility to nudge society in the right direction — away from drugs, for example, or in favor of keeping kids in schools. There is a difference, on one hand, between the liberal welfare state that seeks to micromanage the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and, on the other, a vigorous but limited government that helps individuals reach their full potential and become productive members of society and assists rather than thwarts parents, mentors and neighbors who want to look after the most vulnerable.

Much has been made of the libertarian influence on conservatism, but of course, modern conservatism has always been about limited government, not eradicating government. Even rock-ribbed conservatives these days aren’t recommending doing away with the safety net. Limited government conservatives see a critical role for the public sector. In their must-read piece on conservatism, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner wrote:

Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries, which is why a conservative political philosophy cannot be reduced to untrammeled libertarianism. Citizens are cultivated by institutions: families, religious communities, neighborhoods, and nations. Parents and spouses, churches and synagogues, teachers and coaches, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are among the foremost shapers of citizens in our republic. But government has a necessary (if limited) role in reinforcing the social norms and expectations that make the work of these civil institutions both possible and easier. That role can involve everything from enforcing civil-rights laws, to saving the elderly from indigence, to restricting the availability of addictive substances.

The implications of this approach are not only moral and cultural; they are also economic. Just as citizens must be prepared for the exercise of liberty, individuals must be given the skills and values — the social capital — that will allow them to succeed in a free economy. That is the essence of opportunity: a traditionally conservative, indeed a Lincolnian, goal. . . . The purpose of the state is to keep society safe and strong; to protect us from outsiders and from each other; to maximize freedom in a way that is consistent with security and order and that advances the common good; to provide society’s “mediating institutions” the space they need to thrive; to encourage equal opportunity for all citizens; and to make a decent provision for the poorest and most vulnerable. All of this is meant to allow people to flourish and to advance human happiness. As Madison said, “Justice is the end of government.”

To recapture the White House and revive conservatism as a governing philosophy, the GOP will need a Republican who can articulate that in straightforward and concrete terms — that is, make clear the distinction between “you’re on your own” libertarianism and responsible conservative reform — and can apply that philosophy to the big challenges we face (upward mobility, entitlement reform, immigration, economic growth, national security). The only question is: Who will that be?