Talk of the Town - New Newt July 08 2000

Conservative no more?

Is Newt Gingrich still a conservative? That's the unexpected question left by two recent profiles of the former House speaker, who comes off sounding more like big government's champion than its enemy. Gingrich recently told The Wall Street Journal he wants government to provide Internet access to all Americans and computers to every 4-year-old. Unless government embraces new technology, he warned, "It will not be something that [matters] to the America people."

Washington as Inter-net provider, when K-Mart and others are already giving it away? PCs as a new federal entitlement? Government on the brink of irrelevance and that's a problem? It's enough to make me remember that Gingrich hails from the misty, rarefied halls of academia.

A May article in Atlanta's Business to Business portrays Gingrich as a high-tech apostle with a faith in the future verging on utopianism. Touting new ways, he is equal parts preacher and prognosticator. This comment is typical: "As a country we can give people better lives through better solutions by bringing government into conformity with the entrepreneurial systems they are experiencing in the private sector."

Gingrich may have a rough go selling this new vision to his old conservative allies. Why? Because they generally believe people should better their own lives, not rely on government. Because entrepreneurship is about taking risks in pursuit of profits while governance, most emphatically, is not.

If Gingrich paints himself as something of an amateur futurist, an open-minded scribe compiling expert ideas, he is not without professional intent. "My job," he told Business to Business, "is developing new ideas, new approaches, new solutions to give people a better future." Clearly, understatement is still not his thing.

As you might expect of a would-be guru, Gingrich has written — and posted to the Web at www.newamericanleadership.com — a 27-page manifesto and likely book draft called "The Age of Transitions."

We are living, Gingrich writes, in an era of unprecedented change, a time when the ongoing communication revolution will be followed closely by a revolution based on "biology, information and nanoscience." Together, these two developments will "create a continuing series of new breakthroughs."

Gingrich notes that "government and bureaucracy are changing at a dramatically slower rate" than the private sector. The future's winning political movement, he posits, will be one that explains "new solutions in the language of everyday life," brings "government into conformity with entrepreneurial systems," and "provides greater goods and services at lower and lower costs."

Maybe I'm just an old-fashioned conservative, but cheery talk about government "provid[ing] greater goods and services" makes me nervous. I don't want the federal leviathan made more efficient, I want it shrunk, dramatically. I want government out of my life, not nosing into every last nook and cranny.

Never mind that government has historically been an impediment to innovation, Gingrich wants to "double the federal research budget at all levels." Never mind that conservatism is based on a set of transcendent ideas from family to faith to free markets, he believes that, in the near future, "no understanding, no reform, no principle will be guaranteed to last for very long."

But that is only the first half of "The Age of Transitions"; the second half is starkly different.

For starters, Gingrich says all Americans deserve "the right to save a portion of their FICA tax and control it in a tax-free account [that] could be invested in a broad range of instruments." With just such a plan, George W. Bush has made Social Security a winning GOP issue.

Gingrich also outlines a "Max Tax" proposal to limit every citizen's total tax liability — federal, state and local — to no more than 25 percent of income. This is Gingrich at his best, leading the charge with an idea that is bold, simple and a guaranteed winner in both economic and political terms.

Newt Gingrich hasn't abandoned conservatism, but he has relegated it to the back of the manuscript. As he revises "The Age of Transitions," he would do well to let his compelling ideological vision creep toward the front cover.

Contact Luke Boggs at lukeboggs@ hotmail.com

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