Paul Ryan’s Capitalism-Christianity-Conservatism Cocktail

Who cares about the poor? Congressman Paul Ryan says conservatives do.  After taking heat from Catholic and non-Catholic thinkers alike for his 2012 budget plan, Ryan issued a public mea culpa.  Now he says he wants his conservatism to include both capitalism and caring Christianity.  Will it work?

I'm a conservative, and I care.

I’m a conservative, and I care.

You may recall Ryan’s budget plans of 2012.  As a young darling of free-market conservatives, the Catholic Congressman from Janesville, Wisconsin offered a budget plan that would have slashed public spending.  As he moved into the role of the vice-presidential candidate for Mitt Romney, Congressman Ryan defended his vision as an application of the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity.”  The way Ryan used it, that principle meant that charity should begin at the local level, not be imposed from distant Washington bureaucrats.

With the presidential race of 2016 already heating up, Ryan has offered a heartfelt revision, what one journalist calls a “holy war” on poverty.  As Ryan explained, his new budget proposal will take a more caring approach—a more Christian approach—toward America’s least fortunate.  Conservatives, Ryan said,

can do a better job of describing how our founding principles, which are in perfect keeping with Catholic social teaching, can make a difference in everybody’s life — especially the disaffected and the displaced.

Ryan claims to have had a revelation. As he described it, he absorbed some wisdom from the folks at home. In 2012, he had been using the phrase “makers and takers” to describe the roots of America’s economic woes. At a county fair, Ryan was upbraided for his callous rhetoric by a local Democratic activist. As he remembered last month in the Wall Street Journal, the encounter forced Ryan to reexamine his approach.

that day at the fair was the first time I really heard the way the phrase sounded. Later, I thought about that guy from the Democrats’ tent, and eventually I realized: He’s right.

Who was a taker? My mom, who is on Medicare? Me at 18 years old, using the Social Security survivor’s benefits we got after my father’s death to go to college? My buddy who had been unemployed and used job-training benefits to get back on his feet?

The phrase gave insult where none was intended. People struggling and striving to get ahead—that’s what our country is all about. On that journey, they’re not “takers”; they’re trying to make something of themselves. We shouldn’t disparage that.

Of course, the phrase wasn’t just insensitive; it was also ineffective. The problem I was trying to describe wasn’t about our people; it’s a philosophy of government that erodes the American Idea.

As a result, now Congressman Ryan is offering a new vision of caring conservatism. His new budget plan, he promises, will bring a more effective approach on the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty. As Ryan put it,

When you compare liberal progressivism’s promises with the future that conservatism can actually deliver, the choice is clear. The way forward I’m proposing fosters risk-taking, ingenuity and creativity. Instead of growing government, it grows the economy and offers everyone greater opportunity and prosperity. It can unwind the cycle of dependency and finally defeat poverty. And, perhaps most important, it protects our rights while offering a real safety net for those in need—without overpowering the private economy or our private lives.

We’ve seen this before, of course. When George W. Bush wanted to adjust his conservative brand in 2000, he called himself a “compassionate conservative.”  Now Congressman Ryan seems to be trying a similar strategy.

Will it work? Can conservative politicians marry conservative Christianity with free-market principles?  Can a good-looking young Congressman combine conservative desires for a smaller government with conservative traditions of Christianity?

Can You Find the Conservative Education in This Picture?

Gracy Olmstead doesn’t mind tweaking the noses of her fellow conservatives.  She has encouraged them to relax about the dangers of the new(ish) Common Core State Standards, for example.  And now she wants conservatives to embrace Finland’s progressive-education model.

In today’s battles over classroom teaching and school organization, progressives often point to Finland as a guide.  Olmstead wants to claim Finland’s model as one for thinking conservatives.  I’ll admit: I’m stumped.  I can’t find the “conservative” elements Olmstead wants me to see in this picture.

A Conservative Model?

A Conservative Model?

Famously, Finland’s schools shun standardized tests.  Finland’s teachers are an elite cadre of highly trained professionals.  Students in Finland’s schools spend little time cramming or regurgitating information.  Students are encouraged to play, to think, to roam outside the boundaries of classrooms and textbooks.

Most progressives love this model.

Olmstead does too.  She says it embodies the core conservative principle of subsidiarity.  For those of us who haven’t been paying attention to conservative rhetoric for the past couple of years, “subsidiarity” is an old term that has attracted some new conservative devotees lately.  Paul Ryan, for instance, famously invoked the Catholic notion of subsidiarity as the moral justification for his 2012 budget plan.  Though other Catholic intellectuals disputed Ryan’s definition, Ryan used the term as shorthand for Reagan-esque encouragement of localism in government.  The best solutions were those closest to the problems.  Central governments should play only a subsidiary role, tackling issues local folks cannot.

Olmstead finds this principle at the heart of Finland’s school plan.  No centrally imposed curriculum, no dictatorial imposition of one-size-fits-all schooling.  She notes that some conservatives might not like the lack of private options for schooling.  But she does not stress the fact that American conservatives will likely also rebel at the very practices of schooling in Finland.  Olmstead quotes progressive guru Linda Darling-Hammond’s description of Finnish schooling:

In a typical classroom, students are likely to be walking around, rotating through workshops or gathering information, asking questions of their teacher, and working with other students in small groups.

Now, Olmstead’s enlightened conservatism may find this image appealing.  But many American conservatives (not all!) connect traditional classroom practices with effective schooling.  Indeed, one of the constant themes of conservative educational activism throughout the twentieth century, I argue in my upcoming book, has been this connection between traditionalist classroom practice and traditionalist social morality.

I applaud Olmstead’s open-mindedness.  But I wonder how many other conservatives will join her in her embrace of the Finnish model.