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Conservatives Need a Broader Vision

There has been no effort to look at national needs and possibilities in the large.

Workers at Boulder Dam site in 1934. (Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Those examining the programs of today’s political parties and presidential candidates must inevitably be struck by their failure of imagination.

For one finds in none of them the sense of possibility that gave rise to such past enterprises as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Gallatin’s Report on Public Roads, the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act establishing land-grant colleges, the Newlands Act fostering land reclamation and irrigation, the national parks and forests of the Theodore Roosevelt and Taft administrations, the Soil Conservation Act, the Home Owners Loan Act, the promotion of radio, civil aviation, and industrial standardization during Herbert Hoover’s tenure as Secretary of Commerce, the Soil Conservation Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Bonneville Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and Hoover Dam, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the G.I. Bill of Rights, the interstate highway system, and the promotion of the internet—or even such modest endeavors as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


There has been no effort to look at national needs and possibilities in the large. The last two such efforts were Hoover’s Commission on Social Trends and FDR's National Resources Planning Board. In retrospect, not all these federal initiatives were wise: The highway program and TVA both had their flaws. But a policy of laissez-faire, while largely responsible for the automotive and computer industries, has been frequently destructive of America's land and indifferent to American social life.

There are few grand projects in contemporary America. The National Environmental Policy Act with its institutionalized procrastination has seen to that. Free markets can operate with dynamism when aligned with perverse incentives, too, as we have seen with the consequences of over-grazing and strip-mining. Except under the impulse of the Second World War, American scientific research has not been directed to civilian needs, with the exception of those related to medicine.

It is illuminating to compare the consequences in both New York and London. After nearly a century, New York City has produced a Second Avenue subway with three stops, the Lincoln Center, and Moynihan Hall at Penn Station. Meanwhile, London has Crossrail, the Jubilee Line and other transit projects, the South Bank and Canary Wharf developments, the British Library, renovated railroad stations, and the Greenwich pedestrian bridge.

“If we would rule by reason,” Justice Brandeis once said, “we must let our minds be bold.” There has been little boldness recently.

Seventy-five years ago, writers including Wallace Stegner and Bernard De Voto documented the barrenness of the Great Plains and West Texas and the origins of that barrenness in public policies fostering over-grazing. Nothing of such scale has happened since the Carter administration’s strangulation of Western water projects, each seen as another Hetch Hetchy, rather than as a Grand Coulee Dam or Bonneville Dam, the public works that won the Second World War.


The forests of Appalachia have not been unified or used to foster tourist development. In the West, federal land, including barren land near large cities, has been hoarded, not released for development with suitable environmental restrictions. The nation’s merchant marine has been hobbled by the Jones Act for more than a century, damaging the economies of Alaska, Hawaii, and insular possessions.

Public policy has been formulated on the basis of periodic moral panics, like the Fuel Use Act and alleged food shortages in the 1970s, from which we were rescued by the "Green Revolution" and fracking, not federal interference. A similar panic now fosters a wasteful electric-car craze.

Disconcertingly large portions of the nation’s young now seek careers in the law or finance. Nothing has been done to promote social work, nursing, the ministry, or high-school teaching as useful and important occupations. While there are large public investments in space travel, the earth-bound promise of hydrology, oceanography, geothermal energy, tidal energy, and desert agriculture can scarcely be said to have captured the public’s imagination. And appeals for more training in critical languages have fallen on deaf ears.

Laissez-faire is not enough, nor do appeals for the collectivization of day care, elder care, dentistry, and other portions of the economy make any sense. But intelligent conservatives must recognize that government has a role to play both in removing incentives to perverse sexual and social behavior and in encouraging promising areas of study and social effort.