Washington — Many conservatives, ardent Reaganites including leaders of the Moral Majority , seem willing to promote more government if it serves their purposes, despite the theme of the Reagan campaign to "get government off our backs" -- reduce taxes, reduce regulation, leave more room for individuals to achieve their own goals.
Pressure is developing, particularly from fundamentalist Christian groups, to push the new administration into a series of actions aimed at reforming society in ways which would put government on the backs of more people, not less.
It won't work. It will divide the Reagan administration, tangle it in enfeebling controversy among its own natural supporters, and distract it from accomplishing the priority objective for which it was elected -- to rebuild a healthy economy, cut inflation, and increase productivity.
President Reagan can't afford to move in two directions at the same time. There has been too much of that in the past. One can't slim down government to achieve economic ends and fatten government to achieve social ends, many of which may be better brought about by private initiative.
There is plenty to give us concern and anxiety about the state of American society today: the use of drugs, the divorce rate, the number of unmarried couples living together, the pornography gone amok -- plus narrow-interest disdain for majority rule which undermines the very process of democratic government. These are legitimate social concerns which nearly everyone feels and which many conservatives want the new administration to correct through all kinds of laws.
I offer this counsel of Abraham Lincoln: "In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, governement ought not to interfere."
I do not minimize the rightness and the importance of rebuilding the moral fabric of American society, preeminently the family and our more humane regard for each other, but I would like to emphasize that the government is not the only instrument for social reform. There is a great opportunity and need for individual and voluntary collective leadership.
We tried to regulate the drinking habits of the nations in enacting the prohibition amendment. It didn't work.
The Supreme Court has ruled that every woman has the right to choose abortion if that is her wish. Should we enact a constitutional amendment which would take away that right?
Some want to enact a constitutional amendment to require Congress to balance the budget every year except in emergency. Is it wise to legislate by constitutional amendment? That's what we did with the prohibition amendment. Such a provision would be dangerous without providing an exception for emergencies and it would be meaningless with it. Congress could declare an emergency anytime it wished.
Those conservatives who are most intent on bringing about what they see as a better society ought not to turn to more government as the first resource but rather to capitalize on the powerful resource of individual initiative.
Even if the Reagan administration were disposed to make the agenda of the Moral Majority its own, it would be very imprudent, even hurtful, for it to attempt to do so. It can't afford to take on a heavy burden of controversy until it shows it has mastered its overriding priority of bringing inflation under control and steering the economy upward.
One political commentator, who wishes Reagan well, puts it this way:
"If the new administration chooses the economic agenda, it will have a chance of success that can broaden its constituency and give it a leg up on the Democrats in the struggle for the future of American politics.
"If Reagan chooses the social agenda, the administration will squander its energies in what is probably a losing cause, divide its own ranks, and alienate the very voters who could make the Republicans the majority party of the next three decades."
The first alternative is a vision worth working for. I believe it is what Ronald Reagan has in view.