America Needs a ResPublica

Conservatives who want to scale back the federal government need to learn from this British think tank.

A recent report from ResPublica underlines the challenges facing conservatives who want to scale back the federal government. Yet ResPublica itself, a British think tank influential in the Tory government, has no American equivalent—either in its goals or in its startling specificity. Until that changes, fixing America’s systemic problems will prove elusive.

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American Think Tanks

The big American national think tanks are mostly big-picture organizations. They focus on national politics and on theory, and are heavily free-market economics-focused, in part due to the disproportionate number of libertarians and classical liberals most employ. Show up in their offices, and you can find a great conversation about Hayek or a blistering rundown on America’s fiscal trajectory, but you might have trouble finding somebody with serious ideas about how to make America work better.

I should qualify that statement, since all these think tanks do some incredible work: to many of these leaders, who “grew up” professionally with Reagan, “America” means either the national government, big systems like education or entitlements, or economic statistics. Not that they don’t value families, civil society, local governments, and so on—they do. They just don’t consider them to be the responsibility of a national think tank. Thus the few departments and researchers devoted to such things don’t get a lot of attention, and leaders continue to focus mainly on abstract big ideas and on dusty goals they’ve had since 1974. (One exception, the Manhattan Institute, focuses almost exclusively on local and state issues–to its credit–and is thus unable to address the federal problems that affect its own subject material.)

There are two problems with this situation.

  • No bankable conservative vision. While Americans view out-of-control spending unfavorably, they don’t have the same attitude toward axing huge chunks of the federal government (not when it comes to specifics). Thus while economic libertarianism is somewhat in vogue, a comprehensive conservative approach to all levels of government is not.  Put another way: nobody has articulated a conservative vision of American society that significant numbers of people find compelling.
  • No specifics. But even if that were not true, “small government” at the federal level depends on energetic and strong state governments, local governments, nonprofits, families, and citizens ready to carry the load of the huge weight federal programs currently bear. American society, deeply troubled by social problems and addicted to federal programs, is not remotely ready for that load—and there are no national think tanks giving serious thought to what could be done to make it ready. In other words, a conservative—or even a libertarian—vision for society would depend on the “little platoons” working, and they don’t.

Conservative Vision

Phillip Blond, a British philosopher, founded ResPublica in November 2009. At the time, he gave a speech that took a tremendous shot at the status quo of available ideas. The Brits, like us, had essentially been offered a choice between the antiquated behemoth of statism and the seemingly compassionless “trickle-down” policies of the small government Right—the former clearly wasn’t working, and the latter treated people too much like rational actors and acted as though Britain’s deep-seated social problems would solve themselves under the right combination of incentives and government implosions.

In response, Blond offered a paradigm that lumped both the big government camp and the no government camp in the same pile—he angered both, but appealed to a voter pool that was tired of giving a blank slate to either the big government or big businesses that had so spectacularly failed in their trust. Perhaps more importantly, it offered a uniquely conservative vision of society that tapped into the 21st-century desire for connectivity.

“The state as a mass act of collectivisation cannot represent all the diversity and differentiation of our culture and our lives. A bleak Maoism where we must all say and do and think the same is certainly the outcome of a society viewed solely through the state – but this is not any society that anyone would want to belong to. Similarly and contra an extremist liberalism, society is neither a collection of self-willing individuals, nor an aggregation of permanently separate wills that always requires a proxy representation which always by its own terms must be illegitimate. Such a construal reveals that individualism and collectivism are two sides of the same debased coinage producing a society that endlessly oscillates between state authoritarianism and anarchic libertarianism.

“The truth is – and this is a truth recognised by Burke – is that human beings are individuals always born into relationships. We are always-already (unless we are feral) in society but not eclipsed or diminished by it. All social contract theory is in this sense wrong – we are born already in ethos and already enmeshed in culture code and practice, and we do not need a state or a contract to tell us where we are. But what is this society? This society is civil – it is formed by the free association of citizens – and these groups balance and express both individual freedom and collective formation. Association is outside both state and market, and yet it makes the proper functioning of both possible. Association expresses both individuality and community. Association marks the politics of the future: it is the way we will deliver our state, and it is the way we will free our market.”

Yet while the speech offered a Tocquevillean vision that expresses American conservatism perhaps even better than it did British conservatism, it is ResPublica itself that represent’s Blond’s more significant contribution to British politics, and his gauntlet thrown before American public policy.

Conservative Specifics

Guided by Blond’s conservative vision, the think tank focuses on precisely the issue ignored by American think tanks: how to get from where we are now to where we want to be. While American think tanks typically have a fairly clear idea of their desired destination, they tend to be vague on the path of travel—focusing on either the first step or the last. In contrast, ResPublica focuses on the method of transportation.

For example, one impediment to conservative goals is a poorly functioning civil society. Heritage’s approach to this issue tends to focus on either proving the problem exists or, at best, on big theoretical ideas (e.g. “Understanding Freedom for Religion”). ResPublica has produced several reports in the past few months alone, addressing detailed issues like, “The Ownership State: Restoring Excellence, Innovation and Ethos to the Public Services,” and “Civic Limits: How Much More Involved Can People Get?” A look at this last report gives us an idea of what kind of work ResPublica does.

It notes that 30% of Brits do 90% of all volunteer hours and 70% of all civic participation, and that the current system relies heavily on people finding opportunities for themselves. People are too busy and too disconnected for decentralized government to work.

The report examines barriers to participation (58% say work keeps them too busy to get involved), and to voting. It also does something American think tanks continue to avoid doing—namely, think carefully about young people, particularly those who aren’t civically engaged. Among its findings:

  • The 70% who aren’t involved typically don’t believe they can make a difference, either because the political system is too daunting, or because of a lack of personal self-confidence. “Rather than an apathetic and uninterested public, the main reasons behind today’s political disengagement were related to the inability of formal democratic processes (including mainstream political parties and the electoral system) to sufficiently reflect the diverse values and aspirations of modern society, or to offer citizens sufficient influence over political decisions.”
  • Rebuilding civil society will require re-conceptualizing it. 42% of Brits aren’t interested in participating at all. And across the board, “People associate their identities less and less with outside institutions, whether that is countries, political parties, membership organizations or others. Instead, people create their own brands around their own mix of single issues, campaigns, social network profiling and fame culture.” This means some serious thinking will have to go into designing methods of civic engagement that fit modern citizens and their lifestyles. Local governments need to transform themselves into “hubs” for participation and engagement “where partnership and participation are core competencies not optional extras, and they should support the development and growth of other hubs and places of engagement.”

The report also includes a number of case studies—examples of local governments that have tried innovative approaches to local self-government—and numerous statistics breaking down the motivations, habits, and social trends among different groups in the voting population.

Conclusion

Regardless of the merits of its specific policy proposals, ResPublica’s model offers American conservatives a chance to reconsider their approach to policy solutions. 2012 aside, for people to feel comfortable with a conservative vision, first they need to know what that is, and then they need to know how it will make their own community work better. Rumor has it that an American version of ResPublica is in the conceptual stages. Whether or not it materializes, conservative thinkers and candidates interested in long-term policy success need to spend less time arguing Big Ideas and more time presenting a vision for society that has legs—a vision that shows, in practical terms, what more self-sufficient communities might look like, and what needs to happen to make them a reality. Right now, they can’t–because the research doesn’t exist.

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4 Comments

  • Avatar
    September 7, 2011

    Elias Crim

    As one source of the rumor that an American ResPublica is in the oven (indeed I’m one of the cooks), I’d like to say thanks for this thoughtful piece. Our economic recession has been matched by an intellectual one as well, so time for some fresh, localist thinking!

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  • Avatar
    September 9, 2011

    Purple

    America needs a ResPublica like a lung cancer sufferer needs a pack of cigarettes! Ineffectual and money wasting run by a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur and proximity to anyone important in No.10. Best do your financial and social due diligence before bedding ResPublica UK.

    I don’t think so.

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