How Some Conservatives Hurt Conservatism

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Rancho del Cielo, the former Reagan ranch in the coastal mountains above this city, has beautiful views and a 1,500-square foot ranch house. Ronald Reagan lived here from 1974 to 1995 (it was a vacation home from 1981 to 1989) amid simple but comfortable furnishings: rattan armchairs, a plain wooden dining room table, Indian rugs on whitewashed walls, an oak loveseat rocker, a den with a tile floor and sheepskin rugs.

The house disappointed Mikhail Gorbachev, who expected a capitalist tool to display bling. What’s worse, Reagan laid the stone patio in front of the ranch house himself, repaired and built fences, re-roofed the home using red Spanish tiles made from fiberglass and waded into the adjacent pond to catch water snakes. "Nekulturny," Russians would say — not cultured activities for a leader.

Uncultured in one sense, sure, but simple living is good not only personally but politically. Every press report of rich folks spending more on a party than most people earn in a lifetime fuels calls for higher taxes and bigger government. The flip side is that every report of self-sacrificing voluntarism reminds us that the taxes due at mid-April could be lower.

That’s why, when a student at a recent Young America’s Foundation conference here asked what he could do to combat the left, I suggested that he tutor a child who had fallen behind in school. Those favoring small government need to show that Americans can deal with social problems without enlarging the state. Secularized right-wingers who sneer at any kind of poverty fighting, or at the word "compassion" itself, unintentionally aid the left.

That’s right: Some Americans devoted to free enterprise and lower taxes actually push policies and lead lives that push this country toward big government. Leftists who want a centralization of power bear sizeable responsibility for governmental growth. But conservatives who don’t understand the importance of religious and community institutions are also part of the problem.

That’s because a majority of Americans want to do something through common action to help those who are needy. That something can be either governmental, in which case tax bills and government bulk up, or it can be through religious and community institutions, in which case government can shrink. We should not complain about the taxes that fuel governmental action if we neglect volunteer work outside of government.

The politics of this are simple: If Americans have a choice between big government and small government, and if Americans think big government helps the poor and small government doesn’t, a crucial mass will often vote for big government. If Americans think the only way to work together on social problems is through government, most will prefer government to giving up.

Deeds, not just words, can show that community, non-governmental action will work. We need folks who, when they see a problem, don’t run immediately to their representatives in Congress. Some citizens can contribute time, others money, others both. Some can build businesses that offer jobs and also help poor individuals to become ready for those jobs. Doctors can take charity patients and journalists can throw a spotlight on good groups.

We have different callings and different seasons of our lives — but everyone can do something. As Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn says, "The best way to drive out the culture of dependence and entitlement in America is through the relentless love and compassion of caring neighbors."

Relentless modesty among the rich is also important, and here again we can learn from Britain’s William Wilberforce, who two centuries ago wrote that those whom God has blessed should practice moderation and self-denial, avoid idleness and ostentation and "withdraw from the competition of vanity."

A rule of thumb for the rich: Less money spent on self, more time spent serving others, less irritation on tax day.