Whether it is the Department of Veterans Affairs, Medicaid, student loans or any other mismanaged and excessively expensive aspect of the liberal welfare state, the left’s answer to any reform proposal is invariably, “No, you’re trying to destroy it!” To try to reform these programs is, in the left’s eyes, an attempt to hurt the poor, sick, disadvantaged and powerless. The recipients in the current system may not get good care or students may be weighed down with huge debt and no useful degree, but liberals are content so long as more and more taxpayer money is poured into failing programs. Likewise, Medicare and Social Security can crowd out all other domestic programs and be on the road to bankruptcy, but reformers who attempt to make it sustainable for the long haul are accused of throwing Granny over the cliff.

The collapse of the welfare state and the instinctive liberal reaction to defend ferociously the status quo are part of the motivation for the reform conservative movement that is shifting the GOP’s agenda from indiscriminately cutting government to rethinking government. At a panel at the American Enterprise Institute (a prior panel and speech by the Senate minority leader are described here), a set of conservative scholars discussed a new policy initiative, “Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class.”

One of its authors, Yuval Levin, explains in the book’s introduction: “The fundamentally prescriptive, technocratic approach to American society inherent in the logic of the Left’s policy thinking is a poor fit for American life at any scale. The liberal welfare state ultimately cannot be had at an affordable price. It is not the architecture of one or another particular program that makes it unsustainable. It is unsustainable because the system as a whole must feed off of the innovative, decentralized vitality of American life, yet it undermines both the moral and the economic foundations of that vitality.” In other words, it’s bound to fail.

Examples of the problem abound. The VA is close to a European, socialized medicine program as you are going to see in the U.S., and it is killing people. Medicaid is rife with fraud and offers care much worse than non-Medicaid patients receive (in part because the rates don’t attract the best physicians). We’ve spent hundreds of billions on education and our kids do worse in math than do children in Poland and Vietnam. The libertarian would say: “Get rid of it all, and everything will be better!” The reform conservative says, “Let’s see if we can do these things better, or better yet, move more people off Medicaid, for example, and into good-paying jobs.” A good example of the latter mindset is Medicare Part D, a GOP reform that used market forces to keep costs down and make drugs accessible to the elderly. Liberals and libertarians fought it tooth and nail, but it works and people like it.

Liberals hate this sort of conservative talk and would rather spend more money for worse results. Why? We can be cynical and say they have a political dependence on civil servants and want those people to stay employed. Levin instead suggests that it is inherent in their vision of government: “The Left tends to champion public programs that consolidate the application of technical expertise: that try to take on social problems by managing large portions of society as if they were systems in need of better organization and direction. Again, it views government as organizing the interactions of individuals.”

Hand in hand with this go a few liberal habits of mind. First, it’s all about inputs. How many dollars, how many meetings, how many people served. When the dollars in a budget go down (or merely fail to rise), liberals holler that you are hurting the poor, without regard to whether the current programs are doing the job. The outputs — people out of poverty, people in paying jobs – aren’t even measured in many instances. (This isn’t just in domestic policy. Ask a State Department employee what he has “accomplished,” and he’ll reel off a list of memos, meetings and trips.) Second, it imagines that the smartest technocrats can figure it all out and micromanage a vast, diverse and complex country. You get Obamacare, which has federal bureaucrats telling you what an “acceptable” insurance policy is and what is, as the president put it, a “crap” plan that shouldn’t be sold.

The result of all this is a very big liberal welfare state that does a very bad job of addressing people’s problems. Oh, and it drives us into deeper and deeper debt. That is the bad news that contributes to the sense that government doesn’t work for anyone who really needs it. The good news is that the exhaustion of the liberal welfare state, a victim of its own flawed organizing principles, offers the opportunity for a vision of government that is better, more effective and more limited (at least at the federal level).

That, one hopes is the conservative discussion – along with the collapse of American credibility in the world – for the next couple of years and throughout the presidential campaign. As Levin argues, “This involves not a return to some fabled past but a modernization of our antiquated, lumbering, bureaucratic, mid-twentieth century governing institutions that enables a leaner and more responsive twenty-first-century government to help a complex and diverse twenty-first-century society solve its problems. By recovering the animating principles of American government, we can overcome the flabby lethargy of the progressive welfare state.” It requires that the right give up pining for a pre-New-Deal-sized government and recognize that markets and private charity can’t do everything.

It might also convince a majority of Americans that Republicans don’t hate the poor. In fact, if they love their fellow Americans enough to fix government in order to improve their lives and aid in their pursuit of success, people might actually vote for them.