Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) called on conservatives to reach out to poor and inner-city communities with a message of local initiative during an address to the American Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner on Wednesday evening.
Ryan delivered the Kristol Lecture, named for the late Irving Kristol, after receiving the award named for the conservative thinker and leader. Ryan drew connections between social and political theory and the current public policy debates facing the federal government to argue for the continued pursuit of the "American Idea," according to his prepared remarks.
"Government can’t replace our local communities. And it shouldn’t even try. Instead, it should reinforce our communities. Government should expand the space where a free society can thrive," he said.
Liberal big-government policies are "arrogant and condescending," Ryan said, although he conceded that they seek to meet a real need.
Ryan contended that an overemphasis on government crowds out "society" and ultimately fails to meet all of people’s needs, from the material to the relational and spiritual.
These liberal policies contrast with a conservative agenda that emphasizes individual freedom and local involvement, Ryan said.
"When government tries to do too much—when it replaces cooperation with coercion—it weakens our country. It pulls us apart. It deprives people of their purpose," he said.
"So conservatives most of all believe in cooperation—because we believe most of all in freedom," he contended.
Ryan heralded the example of people in his hometown in Wisconsin and in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., banding together with their neighbors to achieve change in their own lives and in their communities.
"We have failed to communicate this vision to those who have never heard of it. We’ve retreated to our cultural cul-de-sacs in an effort to protect our immediate surroundings. Meanwhile, our inner cities, our barrios, and our poor rural communities have languished. This is where our opportunity lies. This is where we must go. This is where we must demonstrate our full vision of freedom and community," Ryan said.
Ryan’s guests at the dinner were three residents of Anacostia whose actions represented the kind of local initiative and cooperation that he outlined in his address.
Medicare and Medicaid, the government healthcare programs for the elderly and poor, provide opportunities for conservatives to initiate free-market reforms that strengthen the programs and local communities, Ryan argued.
"Our reforms should offer people not just the dignity of self-determination—but the comfort of community," he asserted.
"This is a complete vision of conservatism. It’s what we’re striving for. It’s not a vision of petty materialism. It’s not one of lonely individuals overseen by a massive government. It’s one of moral nourishment, of self-fulfillment, of growth and opportunity," he said.