CPAC – a new theory of social change?

Several other bloggers have written about the 2013 CPAC conference, and all of the posts that I have read noted the growing divide in the ‘conservative’ movement. The divide between the several blends of what is loosely called ‘conservatism’ at CPAC is not something unique to this year; it has been evident at the last couple CPAC conferences. However, the divide is growing. Reforming the social stances of the mainstream conservative movement would be an extremely positive thing, but it will only be beneficial to the country if the reform includes a reformed theory of social change.

While it sure does feel great to be in a room full of people who love liberty, markets, and limited government, all cheering for a speaker who passionately and intelligently articulated the same positions we all believe, I’m not convinced that such an activity is a good use of time for creating positive social change. Conferences like CPAC certainly are inspiring and inspiring people to work hard, and helping them remember what they are working for is certainly beneficial, but it’s not enough to solve our country’s biggest problems or eliminate its biggest threats.

CPAC was filled with many grass rots organizers who want to inspire more volunteers to knock on more doors and make more phone calls. For these people, more energy and more manpower, is the route to social change. Meanwhile, the journalists and professors who think we can educate our way to a better world. However, there are also economists versed in public choice theory who tell a different story: actors respond to the incentives that the institutions and rules that constrain them create, and politics is no exception. It’s no mystery that politicians face plenty of incentives that consistently prove to lead them to maximize votes for themselves in lieu of acting in the best interest of our country.

Changing the incentives people face requires changing the rules under which they operate, but I didn’t hear much attention given to that at CPAC. Addressing the systematic problems in how our government function isn’t something that’s going to win the politicians a lot of votes- so it wasn’t discussed.

Spending time debating which camp will dominate conservatives is worthwhile, and reforming many of the clearly outdated, anti-liberty, old-camp ‘conservative’ stances are going to be beneficial to successfully competing with the left. However, our model of social change hasn’t proved very effective. Any reforming of the conservative base needs to be paired with a reformed model of social change that includes institutional reforms which change the incentives that politicians face and resolve the systematic problems that plague government today. How we do that- aka our theory of social change- is what needs to be given attention.

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