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Paul Ryan inspires

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On Wednesday night, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) delivered a talk at the American Friends of the Hebrew University (AFHU) Torch of Learning Award dinner. AFHU is a charitable, non-political organization, and the remarks were distinctly nonpartisan. Leaving the world of partisan politics, however, allowed Ryan to aim for something higher, and he succeeded, giving by far the most interesting and inspirational speech of his public career. The address is worth reading in full to appreciate the speechcraft and savor some of the poetic language. For example:

In both the Christian and the Jewish traditions, there’s a common thread running through them. And that’s the belief in human dignity. It’s the recognition that people aren’t just another factor of production—they aren’t just another means to an end. They are the end. They and their happiness are the center, the focus, the very purpose of our lives. And everything we do—every law we pass, every transaction we make—should enhance human dignity.
And the dignity of the individual rests in large part on the dignity of work. It goes all the way back to creation. The Torah says God made man “and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.” Even before the fall—even before God had told us, “By the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread”—God wanted us to work. Paradise is something more than a beachfront resort. And we are something more than spectators. We are, in the rabbinic teaching, “partners with God in the work of creation.”

Ryan’s message was simple — but not simplistic: “Far too often we look at public policy as an eternal tug of war between government and the market. But laws and markets are tools. We use them for our own purposes. They don’t have to pull in the opposite direction. In fact, they can pull in the same direction. Our job, then, is to make government and the market work together to enhance human dignity.”

The bulk of Ryan’s speech was geared toward explaining how individual dignity, hope and opportunity are best fostered in the relationships between mentors and troubled youths, reformed gang members and students at risk, and the thousands of other settings in which Americans can help Americans avoid or emerge from a life of crime, poverty and isolation. (“And there’s something more at work here — something less obvious, but no less important. These young men and women aren’t just providing a ‘service.’ They’re setting an example. They’re showing their community — and their country — that anyone can be redeemed.”)

Moreover, Ryan is making a point too often ignored or denigrated by conservatives: There is a role for government. The role, however, needs to be supportive, not disruptive of the programs and relationships that do the best work in helping fellow Americans. At the federal level it needs to be to support, coordinate and hold accountable those who are doing the hard day-to-day work, be it local or state government, faith-based organizations, secular charities or private foundations.

I was reminded of Bill Gates, who in a recent appearance explained:

Charity is small. I mean, the private sector’s like 90 percent, and government’s like 9 percent, and philanthropy is less than 1 percent. There are things in terms of trying out social programs in innovative ways that government is – just because of the way the job incentives work – they’re not going to try out new designs like philanthropy can and they’re not going to have volunteer hours coming in to leverage the resources like philanthropy can. So philanthropy plays a unique role. It is not a substitute for government at all. When you want to give every child in America a good education or make sure they’re not starving, that’s got to be government because philanthropy isn’t there day in and day out serving the entire population. It’s just not of the scale or the design to do that. It’s there to try out things, including funding disease research or, you know, academic studies to see if something is more effective.

In Gates’s view, there is a “market failure” in funding of basic research, a gap government must often fill. Government operates on a scale and has resources that the private sector simply does not have. (In the greatest outpouring of charitable giving, private groups raised about $3.2 billion for Katrina rebuilding. Public assistance as of  2010 was $142 billion.) That said, when it comes to innovation, experimentation and implementation, mammoth government bureaucracy comes up short (“most innovation is driven by private enterprise – the magic of the chip, the optic fiber, software, the magic of new drugs, new vaccines, all of that stuff – how you come up with it, how you make it safe, that’s happening in private enterprise”).

The message from Ryan and Gates is profoundly true and also politically constructive: Conservatives should not obsess over cutting federal monies to the poor. (This is a sliver of our budgetary problems.) Liberals should not defend the status quo and government programs that don’t work. Then we can get down to the business of figuring out what the private sector, the charitable sector and the government each do best. Then each can gravitate to its highest, best use. That was the essence of the Ryan anti-poverty program he rolled out over the summer and the reason it was so widely praised.

A final word about Ryan and his address. His remarks exemplify conservatism at its best — aware of the inherent limits and dangers posed by government overreach, but protective of civil society and committed to furtherance of human dignity. It is entirely at odds with the strain of anti-government libertarianism that views government (not terrorists or poverty or social decay) as the greatest threat to civilization as we know it. Both the implications of their philosophy (you’re on your own!) and the tone of those imbued with a zeal for dismantling government (going back to a 1792-sized model, for example) come off as mean-spirited. Perhaps that is why so few Americans subscribe to it.

Americans are a good and just people — but we sometimes have to be reminded of it and be inspired to rise above the fray to be our own, best selves. If that was the goal of his remarks, Ryan hit the bull’s-eye. And, yes, in doing so he revealed himself to not just be an important thinker but a insightful, kind and faithful person.