"We all want progress," C.S. Lewis wrote, "but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive."
This has always been one of my favorite distillations of conservatism. In principle, I still believe it, passionately.
Of course, whenever you read a sentence that begins "In principle," you should consider it a kind of magical conjuring, a rain dance that calls forth a thunderclapping "but" ...
But politics doesn't work this way.
For starters, we don't walk down this road as individuals, but as a very large group. And when we walk down the wrong road long enough, people in the troupe start to like it. They like the sound of the birds and the shape of the trees. They grow accustomed to the weather and the view. Those who said this was the right road don't want to admit they chose poorly or forfeit their roles as leaders. They insist the payoff is just around the corner.
Meanwhile, they add that the road not taken was a bad one, with perils and horrors we cannot imagine. All bad things happen on the road not taken, they say. Why turn back with such wonderful things ahead?
This is the conservative, status-quo bias inherent to progressivism. (If you think there's nothing conservative about progressives, try telling a prosperous Manhattan leftist that we should get rid of rent control because it hurts the poor.)
In America, once an entitlement is created, it's extremely difficult to get rid of. It turns out that people like free things. And when they can't get stuff for free, they like to purchase it at way below true cost. The wrong road comes with amazing subsidies. The right road has a daunting tollbooth.
In principle, I would like to repeal and replace not just the warp and woof of Obamacare all at once, but considerable portions of the Great Society and the New Deal, too. No, I don't want the aged to suffer or the poor to languish (and if you think that's the motivation behind libertarian critiques of the corporatist-welfare state, you have a comic-book understanding of politics).
That is what I would like, in principle. But it's hard. But voters often don't want it. But entrenched interests will fight for their state-created fiefdoms with any weapon they can find. But the media will freak out like Roman senators being asked to make room in their chambers for Caligula's horse.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is in the worst position possible right now. He is a grown-up conservative. He understands both that we must get off the road we are on and that doing so is very, very hard. It's easy to shout, "We're going the wrong way!" It's another thing to convince the caravan to turn around.
Some of the critics of his plan to repeal and replace Obamacare have many good arguments on their side. The replacement bill certainly needs fixing. But other critics don't seem to care much about the legislative or policy details at all. They just want to see Mr. Ryan himself repealed and replaced with a more pliant nationalist.
Mr. Ryan surely would prefer a quick and total repeal of Obamacare. But he has to deal with the reality that Democrats will lay down on railroad tracks before they agree to change a comma in Obamacare, and he must deal with the byzantine rules of reconciliation.
He also has to deal with the fact that the president ran and was elected on a promise to leave entitlements untouched and to guarantee health coverage for everybody. Mr. Trump won by flipping many Obama voters to the GOP column. Obamacare is popular with this constituency. Mr. Trump has officially backed Mr. Ryan, but he doesn't seem bothered by the prospect of Mr. Ryan failing, so long as Mr. Ryan gets the blame.
Hence the bizarre argument on the right: the loudest voices for free-market purity on the health care side, with a president who often says he wants to stay on the road that Obamacare (and the New Deal and the Great Society) put us on. This makes more sense than it seems, because much of the Trumpified activist-right only knows how to denounce "the establishment," even when it is the establishment.
It's almost like some people would prefer to stay the course but be able to complain about it at the same time, like backseat drivers on the wrong road.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. E-mail: email@example.com, Twitter: @JonahNRO.