Thank you, Capt. Schramm – it’s a pleasure to be aboard the good ship Ashbrook. I was welcomed by several thoughtful comments to my posting on nuclear energy. One issue in particular deserves discussion: Would conservatives really sign on to the high level of government activity necessary to make heavy reliance on nuclear power safe and feasible?
My short answer is “Yes.” My longer answer is that conservatism is often described by its enemies, and sometimes by its less helpful friends, as being “anti-government.” Not so – conservatism is much friendlier to government than liberalism. Conservatives favor limited government but oppose ineffectual government. We want the government to succeed at the things governments must do – secure the borders, win wars, jail criminals, build infrastructure. One requirement for that success is that we keep the government from squandering its time, money and moral authority on enterprises it can’t possibly do well, such as building Model Cities, promoting self-esteem, or guaranteeing the “right” to “rest, recreation and adventure,” as FDR’s National Public Resources Board advised in 1943.
The famous sentence from Federalist Paper #51 is, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” During my gloomiest moments I find myself thinking that we’ve somehow screwed up the Founders’ experiment in self-government in both directions: we have a government that manages to be intrusive, expensive and arrogant without being powerful and efficacious.
In the New Yorker, Paul Goldberger recently offered qualified praise to Robert Moses, the city’s mid-twentieth century infrastructure czar. Moses took a wrecking ball to many parts of New York City in order to build monuments like the Triborough and Verrazano-Narrows bridges, the Central Park Zoo and the Long Island Expressway. Robert Caro responded in 1975 by taking a wrecking ball to Robert Moses’s reputation in his monumental, 1,344-page biography, The Power Broker.
A reassessment is finally taking place, one that raises questions the success of Caro’s book had settled – that Robert Moses was a tyrant and a bigot, whose edifice complex caused the charm and vitality to be bulldozed out of every acre he touched in New York. Moses made plenty of mistakes, Goldberger says, but it’s impossible to imagine that city of 8 million people functioning if his successes had never been built. “Robert Moses got things done. In the age of citizen participation, this has become harder and harder. For more than five years, we have been fighting over what to do at Ground Zero, and the future of much of the sixteen-acre site is still unresolved. . . . In an era when almost any project can be held up for years by public hearings and reviews by community boards, community groups, civic groups, and planning commissions, not to mention the courts, it is hard not to feel a certain nostalgic tug for Moses’s method of building by decree.”
America’s next generation of nuclear plants isn’t going to be built by decree. But if it’s going to be built at all, it’s going to be with the help of a government that is strong enough to govern. That government will be obliged to control itself, but according to the Constitutional mechanisms of republican government, rather than through an infinite number of apertures where any disgruntled group can throw sand in the machine’s gears. The next generation of nuclear plants, in other words, won’t just clear the skies and undermine the economies of terrorist-friendly states. It might also help make American government adequate to its tasks.