In “‘You Didn’t Build That,’ Conservative Style,” Yaron and I criticize a speech by Sen. Mike Lee for expressing the same fundamentally collectivist view of America that President Obama and many on the left today advocate. That’s a strong claim, and while our article does a very good job of explaining the essence of our argument, it’s impossible to cover every aspect of our position in one op-ed. So I’m going to elaborate on various points in the op-ed in a few blog posts.
The first question worth asking is, why criticize Mike Lee? David Mark at Politix wonders exactly that about our piece. Here’s what he says:
“Lee would seem a strange target for libertarians, at least on economics (he’s also a strong social conservative). He got to the Senate in the first place by knocking off a deeply conservative Utah senator, Bob Bennett, in the 2010 Republican primary process. Lee argued the incumbent was insufficiently loyal to the conservative creed. Since entering the Senate in January 2011 Lee has been one of the chamber’s most consistent conservatives.”
We aren’t libertarians, but Mark raises a good point. Lee, a Tea Party favorite who was swept into office in 2010 as part of a conservative backlash against big government, is generally seen as more of a conservative purist than many Republicans. Why criticize him? The answer is precisely because he is seen as a radical and a standard-bearer for “true” conservatism. What conservatism stands for is far more likely to come from someone like Lee than from the status-quo “RINO”-type Republicans he was put in office to oppose. So when a bright guy like Sen. Lee articulates a vision for America that is supposed to be the conservative answer to the left’s vision, we ought to pay attention to what he says.
So what does Lee say? Yaron and I capture the essence of it in the op-ed. The essence of America, according to Lee, is togetherness. It’s “cooperation and community,” “‘we’re all in this together,’” “networks of people and information and opportunity,” “your success depends on your service” to others, “social solidarity,” “voluntary communities,” “organic communities” and “heroic, empowering communities.” So the Senator is obviously a big fan of communities. What he is not a big fan of, judging by what he leaves out of his vision for America, is individuals and all the hard work and thought they put into producing the wealth we enjoy in this country.
David Mark also claims that we think “Lee is wrong to even raise the issue of poverty—even from a conservative perspective.” But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a politician speaking up about poverty. The question is, what does he say about it, and, importantly, about the nation that he claims to be the answer to poverty?
Well, Lee claims that America was founded as one big war on poverty. Now, I suppose one could take this to be a rhetorical flourish or an effort to be clever. If it were, it would be a particularly bad one. It’s wildly wrong, as anyone with even passing familiarity with the Founders’ views and the ideas that inspired them would know. It’s also strategically foolish, in that it accepts the terms of the left’s argument. The implication of Sen. Lee’s claim is that the purpose of government is to “solve” poverty—that America was founded as a kind of 18th-century version of a welfare state. This is what the left believes, but if you want to distinguish yourself from them, why would you start by agreeing with one of the central tenets of their world view?
Of course, one answer is that you actually do agree with them. That’s the argument we make in the op-ed, and in my next post I’ll explain in more detail why we are right.