February 14, 2000

February 14, 2000 | Commentary on Political Thought

The Future of Conservatism

Some predictions about the future are wackier than others.

In 1967, the head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission told a women's group that the housewife of 2000 would work less thanks to a multi-armed "robot maid" capable of sweeping, vacuuming "and picking up your husband's clothing" simultaneously.

That prediction seems silly today, but it pales compared with prophecies about the decline of American conservatism. Some critics, such as Princeton University Professor Sean Wilentz, say liberalism will dominate the future because conservatives have no more tax dragons to slay or evil empires to fight.

"Liberalism is back-maybe not in name, but in spirit and substance," Wilentz declared in a newspaper essay last fall.

That's far wackier than a robot that sucks up the crushed Cheetos behind the couch while picking up dirty socks. Liberalism is not coming back-because conservatism never left the scene.

Why would it? Conservatism liberated Eastern Europe and defeated the Soviet Union without firing a shot. It reduced taxes and let people go as far as their dreams can take them. It made America a country the world could admire again. In short, conservatism dominated the last quarter of the 20th century because it offers solutions that work-and there's no reason to think it won't do the same in the 21st.

Consider three major policy challenges America will face in the coming years. In each case the conservative approach sounds fresh, while the liberal prescription sounds like something ripped from the playbook of the Great Society or New Deal.

Social Security: The Social Security system will effectively go bankrupt in 2014, when today's 51-year-olds are scheduled to retire. The conservative solution is to let workers privately invest their Social Security taxes. Right now, the best "rate of return" workers can expect for their Social Security dollar is 2.4 percent, compared to average returns of 10 percent for British workers, who are allowed to put their retirement funds in private accounts. The liberal solution, by contrast, is to do nothing-or worse, to raise taxes and cut benefits to such an extreme degree that Social Security will go from a bad deal to a full-scale rip-off.

Missile Defense: We need a national missile defense system now to neutralize rogue states such as North Korea, which experts believe already has missiles that can hit the United States. The sad part is that protection of the American people could have been a 20th century achievement if President Clinton hadn't opposed it. The president believes America can't build a missile defense because it must follow the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty with the Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union has been kaput since 1991, and under international law the treaty is worthless. The situation resembles Monty Python's famous "dead parrot" routine: Conservatives keep shouting that the ABM treaty is dead, but the president insists it's "just resting."

Health Care: After flirting with nationalized health care in the 20th century, America needs market-driven reforms in the 21st to keep its health care system the best in the world. One example: changing Medicare to let senior citizens buy coverage from health plans that compete for their business-just as members of Congress, the White House staff and other government employees and retirees do today under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program. The competing plans give patients more choices and keep costs reasonable. In short, everything Medicare promised to do in the 1960s.

Conservatives will change the 21st century just as they changed the 20th. Conservatism is based on freedom, opportunity and responsibility-ideas that span centuries because they work. The same can't be said for liberalism-or robot maids.

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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