WASHINGTON — Tonight, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) addressed the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s (EPPC) 40th anniversary celebration. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
“Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it. You know, tonight feels like a family reunion—except I’m actually happy to be here. I have known many of you for more than 20 years. And whenever I need advice, you are still the people I go to: Jim Capretta, Yuval Levin, Pete Wehner, George Weigel. In fact, the way I see it, I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the people in this room—which, depending on the websites you read, is either an endorsement or an indictment.
“Yes, a lot of us—we go back. Some of you might not know this, but Pete gave me one of my first jobs in Washington. I worked for him as an economic policy analyst at Empower America. This was back in the day when I thought I was going to get a doctorate in economics—until I realized I didn’t have the social skills. I still remember when he called to offer me the job. He said to me, ‘We’re taking a big risk on you. You’re a lot younger and less experienced than anyone else we’re looking at. But we think you have potential.’
“Well, I reminded Pete about this earlier tonight, and I said, ‘I hope I lived up to your expectations.’
“And he said, ‘Oh Paul, don’t be silly. You’ve still got plenty of time.’
“But in all seriousness, I want thank everyone at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In the past 40 years, you have truly made your mark. You have built a great institution. A lot of people get involved in politics. Some donate money. Others volunteer their time. But all of you have given something very important: your ideas. Your scholarship is your service. And I know it feels like you’re muttering into a void sometimes. Far too often politics is a thought-free zone. But the absence only highlights the need. If our country is in a rut—and I believe it is—then we need people like you to blaze a new path.
“Now, I admit that path might be hard to see in a year like this. But here’s one way I interpret all this upheaval: A lot of people don’t like conservatism as they know it. They’re in the market for something new. And this should not be all that surprising. We like to say we need to apply our principles to the challenges of the day. So let’s do that—because for too many people, Republicans seem to be caught in a time warp. They’re thinking, ‘We don’t control our borders. Wages are going nowhere. College and heath care keep getting more expensive. ISIS continues to spread. And what are Republicans going to do about it?’
“So we need to adapt our policies to meet the challenges of the 21st century. That’s exactly what House Republicans are trying to do now. And I’ve noticed this gives some conservatives heartburn. But we have to remember policy is not principle. Policy changes with the circumstances. Principle stays constant throughout. So as the circumstances change, our policies must change too—all to keep our principles alive and thriving. There are enormous forces of change at work in our country, whether it’s technology or globalization. And so the question we face is, will we control these forces of change? Or will they control us? Will they make us abandon our principles? Or will we make them reinforce our principles?
“But that raises the question: What are those principles? And this is why I think what you do is so important. What makes you different from other think tanks is you emphasize the full spectrum of conservative thought. You understand conservatism is more than a political philosophy or an economic school of thought, though it is all of those things. Conservatism, in its fullest sense, is a way of life. It is a moral code. This can be easy to forget when we’re debating the merits of the Earned Income Tax Credit or the right number of ships for the U.S. Navy. But at the heart of every policy debate is a moral debate.
“Supply-siders, reformicons, neocons—they’re all branches of an old, oak tree we call conservatism. They each have their own points of emphasis, but they all grow out of one special insight: Freedom is a high bar. All of us are meant to be free. And yet to live in freedom demands a lot from us. It demands self-discipline, mutual trust, and wisdom; courage and hard work. But just as it is the most demanding lifestyle, it is also the most fulfilling. Because when we live up to those standards—when we reach that high bar—we feel that sense of accomplishment. We know our lives have meaning. That, to me, is the essence of conservatism: To be free is to do good.
“Notice I didn’t say perfect. That’s because conservatives have a keen sense of our limits. We know how hard it is to make progress in this world. We know how hard it is to keep a job . . . or to stay on budget . . . or to raise your kids right . . . or to keep your faith in times of doubt. We know how fragile the gains are . . . how easily they can be lost. And so we’re grateful for what we have. And if sometimes we seem a little stingy or even defensive, that’s only because we’re being protective.
“We’re trying to protect the country we love—because we know we can’t succeed on our own. Raising a family, starting a business—these things are risks. There’s no guarantee they’ll work out. And people won’t take these risks unless they feel secure—unless they believe their hard work and integrity will be rewarded. You won’t start a family just yet if the neighborhood isn’t safe. You won’t take that job if taxes are too high. You won’t start a business if there’s too much red tape. Government has to create an environment where people feel secure enough to take those risks. It can’t guarantee success, but it has to set the conditions that make success possible.
“Look at it this way: We all like to quote the Declaration of Independence: All of us ‘are endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights, [and] among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ But we almost never quote the next line: ‘That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.’ And I would argue that what secures our rights are the rules we live by—both written and unwritten, formal and informal. It is our conduct, how we treat each other. We can live out our faith because we let our neighbors do the same. We can speak our minds freely because we’ll listen to people who disagree. Government is supposed to uphold the standards we set for ourselves.
“Not impose its standards on us—that is the difference between us and the progressives. We do not believe we should be governed by our 'betters'—that experts or elites should steer us in their preferred direction. We know that’s wrong. That goes against our core principle of equality. And precisely because we believe all of us are equal, we believe there is no problem that all of us—working together—cannot solve. We believe every person has a piece of the puzzle, and only when we work together do we get the whole picture.
“So say we want patient-centered health care. I’ll tell you right now: We’re not going to get it from some task force at HHS. We need every single of American—all 320 million of them—hunting for the best deals, seeking out the best doctors, developing the best treatments, creating the innovation. No regulation can replace the creative force of competition. Government can foster that force. Government can put up the guardrails, but it is the people who move us forward. That’s how you get high-quality health care.
“And I think the biggest frustration with government these days is that it does not seem to be upholding our standards but lowering them—our standard of living, our standard of decency, even our standing in the world. It is more interested in maintaining its control than it is in maintaining our standards. It’s a lot easier to control five big insurance companies than it is to promote innovation in every nook and cranny of our economy. And what this lowering of standards suggests is a decidedly low opinion of the people they serve. Instead of helping you live out your potential, government tries to buy you off with a new program. It’s like giving you the trophy without putting you in the game.
“That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Let me give you an example. A few weeks back, I was in Birmingham, Alabama. And while I was there, I spent some time at what’s called the Dannon Project. It was founded by a married couple, Jeh Jeh and Kelli Pruitt. In 1997, Jeh Jeh’s brother, Dannon, was killed by his friend in a drug deal gone bad. And Jeh Jeh and Kelli decided, ‘This has got to stop.’ So they took matters into their own hands. They started a program that takes people coming out of prison, pairs them with a case worker, helps them find a job in the community—a lot of them become nursing assistants—and helps them get back on their feet with whatever they need, whether it’s counseling, health care, you name it.
“This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Yes, they get funding from the Department of Labor, but they make decisions at the local level. And no surprise, they get results. Only 3 percent of the people who complete this program go back to crime—compared to a statewide average of 44 percent. And it’s because each part of the community does only what it can do—and no more. When people commit crimes, government keeps them off the streets. But after they’ve made amends, the people in the community help them readjust. Government is not the coach calling the plays; it’s the ref enforcing the rules.
“And when I met the Dannon Project team in person, I could just see the pride in their faces. These were people who had struggled with crime and drugs. And here they were. They were technicians and nurses and mothers and fathers. They had turned their lives around. And they were helping other people do the same. They were making a difference. And when you think about it, that’s what we all want, isn’t it?
“I was talking about the need for change earlier. I think this is a good place to start. In the 80s and 90s, we had a crime epidemic in this country. It made sense to have a no-tolerance policy. But now that we’ve had time to stop and look back, I think it’s clear we overshot. States like Texas have shown that you can both lower the prison population and lower the rate of crime with commonsense reforms. Yes, we should keep violent criminals off the streets—of course. But I don’t think we should slam the maximum prison sentence on people who commit nonviolent crimes. Give judges more flexibility to encourage and reward good conduct. And I think that is perfectly in keeping with conservatism. We’re saying, if you sober up, if you learn new skills, if you rebuild your family, you will get a second chance.
“Now, we have to take this mindset and apply it to every issue we face. We’ve set up six task forces in the House to do just that, and we’re going to need your ideas. And as we put together our proposals, I think we need to figure out exactly . . . what are the rules we want to live by.
“If we believe every patient should get the care they need, then we should repeal Obamacare and make insurance companies compete for your business. If we want Medicare and Social Security to be there when we need them, then we need to reform them—to make them more efficient and more sustainable. If we want to be energy independent, then we need to make more energy right here in America. If we want to take control of our future, then we need to take control of our borders. And in the fight against ISIS, if we’re unhappy with the president’s strategy—such as it is—then we need to offer our own.
“In all of these cases, we’re calling for a more engaged citizenry. Because we believe when government meets its responsibilities, then the people can solve our problems.
“Many years ago, Ronald Reagan said conservatives needed to raise a banner of bold colors, not pale pastels—to make it ‘unmistakably clear’ where we stand. Well, if I could add a corollary to that, I would say we need to take that bold banner and to raise it high for all to see—not just to contrast ourselves with our opponents but to rally the whole country to a great cause. Appeal to their aspirations. Make those aspirations possible. Be bold . . . and aim high. For 40 years, the Ethics and Public Policy Center has helped us aim higher so all of us can do better. You’ve done so much already, and there’s still more to do. I so look forward to working with you to defend and renew the country we love. Thank you.”