At Hillsdale College, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) talked today about “self-government under the rule of law.” The most interesting part of the speech from a policy and political perspective came when he explained what kind of government conservatives should be for and what reforms they should pursue.
The first involved big business and the conservative movement. Ryan said that “there’s another fallacy popular among our ranks. Just as some think anything government does is wrong, others think anything business does is right. But in fact they’re two sides of the same coin. Both big government and big business like to stack the deck in their favor. And though they are sometimes adversaries, they are far too often allies.” He continued: “So government tips the scales in their favor, instead of letting competition sort things out. And big business is a willing accomplice—because regulation keeps the competition out. Many times they don’t oppose new regulations; instead, they help write them. The point is, crony capitalism isn’t a side effect; it’s a direct result of big government. And you can see the results at work throughout our economy. It used to be that only the success stories were household names. Now the failures are: Solyndra, Fisker, Tesla. And businessmen don’t spend all their time hustling in the marketplace. They spend more and more time hustling in Washington. Both businessmen and bureaucrats take part in this culture of double standards.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has talked about crony capitalism as well, noting that it makes for an inefficient economy and increases inequality. Republicans would be smart to package a whole group of crony capitalist provisions in the tax code, federal regulations and government contracting realm. Vote to remove them all, and let Democrats defend them. Considering that the GOP 2016 presidential nominee could well face Hillary Clinton, who has fed at the corporate trough for years, there will be few themes as effective as this one.
The second noteworthy feature of Ryan’s speech was a much-needed admonition about conservatives’ over-reliance on the courts. He said that “there is the temptation to ask courts to intervene and solve our problems for us. Some conservatives think of judges the way Progressives think of bureaucrats: technical experts with the solutions to constitutional conflicts. But judges, like bureaucrats, are often the problem. We must be mindful of this temptation. It is true the Supreme Court can be an ally in conflicts surrounding the constitution. But, it can also be an adversary. We can’t rely on the Court alone to defend our rights. Under our Constitution of self-government, the court that really counts is the court of public opinion, where the American people hand down their verdict on Election Day.”
This was certainly the case with Obamacare when conservatives initially put their faith in the Supreme Court to overturn the law. However, without capturing Congress and the White House and making a substantive argument against the law while offering an alternative, it does little good to rail about federal overreach. That is how the pro-life movement has made progress on abortion. Simply complaining about the Supreme Court’s intrusion into a matter of public policy was insufficient; the pro-life movement had to work to change hearts and minds while pushing to pass legislation that curtailed the most extreme aspects of the pro-abortion agenda (e.g. a partial birth abortion ban, protecting free-speech rights near clinics).
In the context of elections, this translates into a populist agenda that is not anti-government but anti-bad government. It means outside of conservative conclaves leaving out the political philosophy and history lessons. Talking directly to the American people, both in identifying the ugly nexus between big business and big government and in making arguments in terms of increased prosperity, opportunity and fairness, will be the formula for success.