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Do conservatives really deny that public problems exist?

Monday, 19 Aug 2013 | 1:54 PM ET

Mike Konczal says over at Wonkblog that conservatives are guilty of not recognizing that some problems really are public and can only be addressed through public policy.

This isn't as far-fetched as it might seem. Before conservatives embraced the term conservative, they tended to refer to themselves as individualists. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which had nurtured several generations of young conservatives, began life as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, for example. So there's definitely a tendency on the right to emphasize individualism.

But as a general proposition, it just isn't true. What conservatives tend to believe is not that public problems do not exist—it's that expanding government is not typically the appropriate response to public problems. No one denies the necessity of a social safety net. But we do contest the notion that the social safety net works best when operated by the government.

From Konczal's point of view, when my brother Tim Carney questions the role of the government in providing a social safety net he is attempting to "remove the public role in the safety net." But removing government is not equivalent to removing "the public." Resistance to this confusion of the public with the government is at the very heart of what it means to be a conservative.

In case it is unclear, for conservatives the public includes civic organizations, churches, extended families, local communities, and even ethnically oriented social groups like the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Of course there's a role for government but that role is not properly primary or central.


Conservatives worry that government programs aimed at addressing public problems tend to acerbate those problems. Take Social Security. We've long known that providing a public pension system through government tends to make people more dependent on government pensions and less likely to have children, which undermines the viability of the pension system. A conservative approach would replace this system with one that depended less on government payments and more on intergenerational family income.

In other words, conservatives don't refuse to see that public problems exist. They just refuse to surrender to the idea that a public problem always and everywhere requires a government solution.

—By CNBC's John Carney. Follow me on Twitter @Carney

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