A reader writes, in response to my post about Abraham Lincoln’s birthday,

Good post Paul. I’m in the middle of reading Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” At the same time I’m helping out on Wade Gent’s campaign (see previous post), which, on more than one occasion has resulted in me being accused of “not being a real Republican.”

My idea of Republican principals is basically: (1) government shouldn’t spend more than it has on hand, (2) no country ever taxed its way to prosperity, and (3) to the greatest extent possible, government should stay out of peoples business. I am a lawyer, which according to some also disqualifies me from being a member of the GOP.

I don’t know Paul, am I not a good Republican? What would Abe think? Is Ronald Reagan rolling in his grave? Would Craddick buy me a cup of coffee? Should I seek absolution from James Dobson?

I’d like to know what you and your readers think.

Here is my response:

“Team of Rivals” is a brilliant book, and I could not help but be struck by the contrast between Lincoln and George W. Bush. Lincoln welcomed diverse opinions. Bush was “the decider,” who settled on a point of view and never questioned it. Colin Powell was right about everything concerning Iraq — if you don’t believe me, read “Bush at War,” by Bob Woodward — and no one would listen because everyone in the inner circle shared the same ideology. A political party that does not tolerate diversity of opinion is a political party that is hell bent for permanent minority status.

My view of conservatism is the one expounded in “The Devil’s Dictionary” by Ambrose Bierce: A conservative is a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others. I learned from working in the Legislature that the public says it wants change but often doesn’t like it when they get it. So I think conservatism begins with viewing change with a certain degree of wariness. Ideological schemes to remake the world, whether it is bringing democracy to Iraq or privatizing government services or providing education with vouchers, all run up against the doctrine of unanticipated consequences. The left has been particularly susceptible to social engineering. A book that strongly influenced me was “The Limits of Social Policy,” by Nathan Glazer. A Harvard liberal, he was closely associated with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The theme of his book is essentially that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. School busing, welfare, and giant housing projects were undertaken with the best of intentions, and all had ruinous effects. School busing led to white flight that destroyed the cities; welfare disincentivized marriage and work, which undermined the black family; giant housing projects bred crime and drug use and illegitimate births. So I have come to believe that change should be incremental and pragmatic, rather than complete and ideological.

The next pillar of conservatism is individual liberty. The battle between left and right often boils down to a tug-of-war between the ideals of liberty and equality. Benjamin Franklin’s dictum is often quoted: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The modifiers are often left out, but they are important, because they allow us to debate which liberties are essential and how temporary is the safety rather than focus on the absolutes. The Republican party has sold out on the issue of individual liberty to get the votes of the moralists.

My next conservative value would be fiscal restraint. This is supposed to mean pay-as-you-go government, but under the current Republican leadership, it has meant borrowing money that our children and grandchildren will have to pay back. That’s what privatized toll roads are all about. We have given up funding higher ed and instead have tuition deregulation and inadequate loan programs–not even scholarships–that will create a generation of debtors. All pretense of fiscal restraint was tossed away during the last session when we issued $9 billion in bonds. We’re bonding equipment, for goodness sakes.

An essential element of fiscal restraint for conservatives is belief in the market. That boils down to this: There is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything has a cost. And so, I would challenge one of the conservative principles of my correspondent: “No country ever taxed its way to prosperity.” The principle itself is sound enough, but the way that today’s fiscal conservatives attempt to enforce it, by opposing any tax increase, flies in the face of market principles. The failure to tax can kill prosperity. Ask yourself: Are we better off today by financing the Iraq war by being in hock to the Chinese and the Arabs, than we would have been by paying for the war with a tax increase and still controlling our own destiny? I don’t think so. The dollar is in the tank, and our national security is compromised. You can’t beat the market. There is a cost for not paying for the war. If you don’t pay for it with taxes, you pay for it another way that is far more dangerous and destructive of the economy.

The last of the values in my conservative pantheon would be local control: the idea that the government that is closest to the people governs best. But the current crop of Republicans wants nothing more than to dictate to school boards and cities and counties how much they can tax and spend. One more thing: All of these are overriden by the duty to be good stewards of the public trust. Whether conservatives are in power or liberals, it is their duty to address the issues of the day and improve the basic services of the state.