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Irving Kristol Award address: Conservatism and community

Rep. Paul Ryan: AEI Annual Dinner Address 2013

Conservatism and Community
Paul Ryan
American Enterprise Institute, Kristol Lecture
May 8, 2013

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

I want to thank Arthur for his remarks. And I want to thank all of you for this award. It’s always an honor to be recognized by your peers. But it’s a special honor to be recognized for your work—for your contribution to a cause. And I’m especially grateful because in this case it’s our common cause. It’s the American Idea.

What is this idea? Well, it’s the belief that the circumstances of your birth shouldn’t determine the outcome of your life—that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. As I’ll explain, this belief is at risk—and in need of support. And AEI has given its support. For years, you’ve taught the country about the American Idea: what it means, where it came from, who first spoke of it, and why. One man who gave his all to this effort was Irving Kristol.

Kristol was a Renaissance man. He could discuss Rousseau, then size up Reagan—all while the rest of us tried to catch up. He was that perfect blend of book smarts and know-how. In short, he was one of a kind.

But you’ve carried on his work. You’ve continued to defend the American Idea. Four years ago, Charles Murray stood here and argued we should keep our way of life because it’s the best way of life—the most challenging and the most fulfilling. Last year, Leon Kass took up the baton. He argued we should love our country, not just because it’s our own—but because it is good. It respects every person’s dignity. Both men reminded us why we should defend the American Idea.

But we might lose it. Today the Left runs Washington. They want to replace the American Idea with the progressive state. They want to replace equal opportunity with equal outcomes. And they’re well intentioned, I might add. They’re trying to do good as they see it. Hard as it might be to admit, they’re speaking to a need—a need for security in a world of growing complexity. Before conservatives can win, we have to understand what we’re doing wrong.

The fact is, we also have to speak to this need. We have to explain how too much government will weaken security—and how our agenda will increase security. We have to reclaim the center of our politics. And we can. It’s not too late.

My predecessors on this stage discussed why we should save the American Idea. Tonight, I want to discuss how we can save it. It’s a big project. It goes beyond politics. But I’ll stick to the political side—with a due sense of humility in a crowd like this. Here’s the CliffsNotes version: Both the Left and the Right too often split the world into two halves: the individual and the government. They forget a key part of life—the part that gives real security. They forget society—that space in between. We can save the American Idea by saving that space for society.

All in all, I hope that I show you the value of a politician’s perspective—and that you don’t take the award back when I’m done.


First, let’s review where things stand. The Left thinks we’re in a new era—and for good reason. The health-care law isn’t just another entitlement. It puts one-sixth of our economy in the hands of federal bureaucrats. It allows government to stage-manage our lives in the most personal of domains: our health. And now that the Supreme Court has upheld the law, we cannot be sure it will enforce the Constitution’s limits. We can’t be sure government will stay within its bounds.

So how did we get here? The health-care law is part of a larger movement called progressivism—which began in the late 19th century. At first, it was a bipartisan affair. The progressives included both Republicans, like Teddy Roosevelt—and Democrats, like Woodrow Wilson. These leaders were skeptical of the Constitution. They disliked the idea of limited government.

You can understand why. At the turn of the 20th century, change was everywhere—from the crowded streets of New York to the plains of Texas. America was becoming more urban, more industrial. Families were leaving the farm for the city, where their lives fell into turmoil. And life became more complex. No longer did most lives follow the changing of the seasons. They now followed the twists and turns of the business cycle.

We were growing fast—which meant serious growing pains. Immigrants slept in tiny apartments—ten people to a room. Families lived with the threat of disease—and, too often, death. Banks went bust. Our economy was growing mightily. But there was great pain too. And that pain seemed to cry out for somebody to do something. And that somebody, the progressives thought, was the federal government.

The progressives thought they were improving on the Founders’ work. They thought the Constitution was old and inadequate. People needed more than natural rights. They needed government-granted rights. Only government could navigate the turns of history. Only government could remove the uncertainty from life. In the progressive state, government would build up the most wealth for our country—and divvy it up in the fairest way.

The progressives saw our federal system as an obstacle. They thought our local communities were parochial and inefficient. Why should people have to rely on their family? Why should they have to work with their neighbors? They believed the attachments of family and neighborhood—like the Constitution—were old and inadequate.

Their policies weakened those attachments. In fact, they strengthened only one attachment—to government. The progressives wanted a national community, where government stood supreme, tending to the needs of its subjects.

Progressivism is well-intentioned. But it is also—in my humble opinion—arrogant and condescending. Instead of helping people make their own decisions, it makes those decisions for them. It makes Washington the center of power—and politicians the center of attention. Here’s one reason Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive. His daughter once said he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

But this vision proved compelling. It drew thousands of people into government: the New Dealers, the whiz kids, the poverty warriors. Confident in their cause, they seized the moral high ground. They said they were the heirs of the Founders—when in reality, they were the replacements. They said they were for the people. And their opponents? They were for the rich. They were selfish. When we were debating the health-care bill in the House, one Democrat described the Republican position this way: “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.” Funny, I don’t remember that part.

The progressives hijacked our rhetoric too. They knew the appeal of our founding principles. They masked their novel ideas in the Founders’ language. As president, Woodrow Wilson started new federal agencies and created a new income tax. And what did he call his agenda? The New Freedom.

Behind all this talk is the same idea—the same idea behind the health-care law. The Left thinks they can make health care more rational. And they don’t mind stepping on a few toes to do it. The law puts new burdens on doctors. It adds new coverage mandates—including those that violate some people’s religious beliefs. So doctors talk of closing their offices. And Catholic bishops are thinking of closing their hospitals. Government is pushing out all those providers who don’t agree with it. It’s clearing out the space between itself and each person. It’s invading deeply personal relationships—and in some cases, ending them.

Yet the Left keeps winning elections. Why? Well, you can see the appeal. In uncertain times, people look for security. Progressives seem to have an answer. We may not be leaving the farms anymore. But we are moving into an information-driven economy, where change is rapid. “Creative destruction” sounds a lot better than it feels. Change dislocates and disrupts. The hardships are real. And the progressive state offers a sense of security.

But it’s a false sense of security—because government can’t keep all its promises. We’re learning this the hard way. For years, we’ve talked about big government in theory. Now, we’re seeing it in practice. Again, look at the health-care law. We were told if you liked your insurance plan, you could keep it. But companies are expected to drop coverage. We were told if you liked your doctor, you could keep her. But your doctor might not keep you. We were told premiums would fall. But they’re going up—dramatically.

The health-care law will collapse under its own weight. But we have to offer something better in its place. This is our opportunity to take back the initiative. And our goal isn’t just to win an election. It’s to improve people’s lives. Politics is a means to an end. And the end is for all people to be able to pursue happiness.

So our job isn’t to make even more empty promises. It’s to revive the American Idea. We have to show the American Idea is superior to the progressive state—both in our time and for all time. We have to show the American Idea offers true security—because unlike the progressive state, it offers true community. Its promise is real.

Here’s what the Left got right: The American Idea needs a strong government to secure it. But a government is effective only when it is limited. And a massive government can stifle the American Idea. Government can’t replace our local communities. And it shouldn’t even try. Instead, it should reinforce our communities. Government should expand the space where a free society can thrive.


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