In an amusing account of the Ayn Rand wig-out over Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan, James Pethokoukis writes, “If you’re someone who finds that kind of reasoning — ‘Taxation is theft!’ — appealing and persuasive, then of course you will dislike . . . Ryan’s anti-poverty plan and the safety net it wishes to reform. I really have no interest in engaging in that sort of dorm-room argument. What I do have an interest in is living in the real world, one where Americans, as a society, have long committed to making sure everyone is fed, sheltered, educated — even if that requires government action and taxpayer dough.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Before libertarians attack (again), insisting no credible candidate is arguing for no taxation or no government, let’s acknowledge at the very least that there are real differences between libertarians and conservatives in public policy, not only in the vast divide on foreign policy but on what government should do and what the ideal size of government may be.

It is fair to say that the libertarian version of “reform” means eliminating aspects of government, not reforming them. Ryan and other like-minded conservatives have put behind them (like the rest of the country) any fantasy about a pre-New Deal government. Conservatives not only will tolerate many more governmental actions than libertarians, but they see those actions as positive.

Yuval Levin, writing on reform conservatism, explains that conservatives seek not merely to reduce  the huge and unsustainable liberal welfare state, but to “reinvigorate the original American political vision: a government that treats us fairly and seeks to sustain the circumstances in which we might thrive—rather than one that insists on strictly defining and managing the outcomes of our national life. This means that conservatives must advance a concrete public-policy vision and agenda, and not just a set of restraints on the Left’s vision and agenda.”  This doesn’t involve a return to the pre-New Deal or pre-progressive era (“return to a fabled past,” Levin calls it); rather it calls for “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.” In other words, less isn’t the goal — better is the goal.

But libertarians can take comfort on two levels. First, the path of reform conservatism will bring smaller federal government. It is an inevitable byproduct of the agenda. “Such a government would no doubt be much smaller, more restrained, and less expensive than the one we have today. It would be fiscally sustainable, averting the catastrophe we face if our entitlement programs are not reformed. . . . But more important still, it would be far better suited to our society, our Constitution, our needs, and our nature—far better suited to serving and sustaining our republic in the twenty-first century.” Second, it would be more market-oriented and clear the way for private civil society (churches, families, secular charities) on which libertarians urge we rely (rather than government). And third, to paraphrase William F. Buckley, it’s the least government the public will approve. There is no electoral market approaching a majority for a purely negative agenda (repeal this, cut that, etc.). The frustration Americans feel is not that they want government to disappear, but that they want it to do its job so they can do theirs (work, have a home, raise a family, “pursue happiness”). And poor Americans very much need the wherewithal to get back into a life of work and property ownership (the American dream), for which only government can provide sufficient resources. (As marvelous as private charity may be, in times of a natural disaster, for example, it raises a fraction of what government can provide.)

If liberals seek equality of outcomes and libertarians don’t care about the outcome so long as government goes away, conservatives seek greater opportunity, a rebuilding of the connective tissue between communities and the individual, and better results from government. Ramesh Ponnuru puts it this way: “We have to show that we can have wider access to health care, an affordable safety net, opportunities to learn, and the like, without granting ever more power to government. Sometimes we will be able to make progress by ending ill-considered government policies, sometimes by replacing them with ones more respectful of human nature, economic incentives, federalism, and individual rights.”

Ryan is plainly in this camp, as are Republican governors. Others favor a minimalist government as the highest goal. I think the reform conservatives have the better of the argument on moral, policy and electoral grounds (it relies on the essential center-right coalition), but that will be, I suspect, the larger context for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee. A battle of ideas? We should be so lucky.