Let’s Deploy the ‘Little Platoons’

September 23, 2005; Page A16

For all the differences between the U.S. and Europe, we share a common challenge: how to improve the social well-being of our citizens without a massive growth in the size and intrusiveness of government. We’re convinced that conservatism — properly understood — offers the surest road to social justice.

In many conservative circles, “social justice” is synonymous with socialism or radical individualism. No wonder: For decades, the political left has used it as a Trojan horse for its big-state agenda. Yet the wreckage of their policies is obvious. Compared to the U.S., most European economies are struggling with inflation, unemployment, low growth and a declining tax base; nearly all European societies are burdened with increased crime and family breakdown; and there is a draining away of hope and opportunity.

Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond are charting a new vision of social justice. It recognizes that the problems caused or aggravated by the growth in government cannot be corrected by a crude reduction in its size. Policy must also deliberately foster the growth of what Edmund Burke called “the little platoons” of civil society: families, neighborhood associations, private enterprises, charities and churches. These are the real source of economic growth and social vitality.

The social justice agenda we endorse is grounded in social conservatism. That means helping the poor discover the dignity of work, rather than making them wards of the state. It means locking up violent criminals, but offering nonviolent offenders lots of help to become responsible citizens. It endorses a policy of “zero tolerance” toward drug use and sexual trafficking, yet insists that those struggling with all manner of addictions can start their lives afresh.

In America, this vision emerged a decade ago with bold conservative initiatives aimed at empowering individuals and grassroots groups helping the nation’s neediest, such as the Community Renewal Act and other antipoverty initiatives. Today’s CARE Act is part of the same tradition. Likewise, the Bush administration’s plan to create a Gulf Opportunity Zone after Hurricane Katrina would offer tax relief and small-business loans to support a culture of entrepreneurship.

Britain and America have long enjoyed a healthy exchange of ideas. British Conservatives are learning from America’s experiences with zero-tolerance policing, welfare reform and school choice. George W. Bush’s vision of an “ownership society” owes a great deal to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. These efforts seek to empower individuals and families, not bureaucracies, and unleash the creativity and generosity of neighbor helping neighbor.

The first international conference of social-justice conservatives will convene next week in Washington. We will be sharing experiences of domestic poverty-fighting, but we’re also coming together to forge a global movement of like-minded conservatives. We will be launching a network to promote conservative responses to issues such as HIV/AIDS, world hunger and the enslavement and trafficking of human beings.

Addressing these social problems that have worsened over many decades will take years. “The most important of all revolutions,” Burke wrote, is “a revolution in sentiments, manners and moral opinions.” Yet we believe that social-justice conservatism can produce societies that are more humane than anything liberalism could accomplish. As we build a conservative alternative — a vision informed both by idealism and realism — we have evidence, experience and common sense on our side.

Mr. Smith, a British MP, is a former leader of the Conservative Party. Mr. Santorum is a Republican senator for Pennsylvania.