In business, the urgent often crowds out the important. It's important to have a long-term business plan. But it's urgent to make this week's payroll.
The same applies in governing.
Policymakers are surrounded by urgent problems: General Motors has failed; North Korea is testing atomic weapons; the national debt is exploding. These are big problems, but they can't be solved properly without focusing on what's important: preserving the Constitution and the freedoms it protects.
This has always been the goal of conservatism. And it's what conservatives must focus on even more in the decades ahead.
The most crucial element is national defense. The federal government is required to "provide for the common defense," without which our freedom is impossible. Ironically, while the Obama administration has raced to increase spending in virtually every area ($800 billion or so in "stimulus," $600 billion or so for health care), it intends to slash the defense budget.
In the next fiscal year, the administration plans to spend about 3.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. That paltry investment - far below the post-World War II average of nearly 6 percent of GDP - would then drop year after year, eventually reaching a mere 3 percent of GDP in 2019.
As part of the cuts, President Obama wants to pare or even eliminate many critical ships and planes that would allow the U.S. to retain our advantage over any potential foes. Even worse, the Pentagon recently announced a $1.4 billion cut for missile defense.
One result is that, "We will not increase the number of current ground-based interceptors in Alaska as had been planned," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced. This makes no sense. With North Korea testing nuclear weapons and missile systems, it's urgent that the U.S. expand our missile-defense systems (and even offer them to allies) - not slash funding.
One reason Mr. Obama is eager to reduce defense spending is because he's increased spending almost everywhere else. Our country is already borrowing 50 cents of every dollar that it spends. Under his budget, public debt will more than double to 82.4 percent of GDP by 2019. Interest payments on this debt would be $100 billion more than Mr. Obama projects to spend on the entire Department of Defense.
Or take another constitutional duty: to "promote the general welfare." The long-term picture here looks even bleaker.
Consider the grandfather of entitlement programs. The Social Security Trustees Report says the program has promised to pay out more in benefits than it receives in taxes, starting in 2016. To make good on all of Social Security's promised benefits for the next 75 years, Congress would have to invest $7.7 trillion today.
That's more than twice what the federal government will spend this year on everything it buys. And again, this investment would be on top of the funding Social Security will collect through payroll taxes.
There's simply no way to make the math add up. To avoid a collapse that would endanger future generations, conservatives should press for broad reforms today. Lawmakers should raise the retirement age and focus future benefits on those who need them the most. They should also create personal retirement accounts, so workers could own and invest a portion of the money they shell out through payroll taxes.
Conservatives should demand another prerequisite of freedom: a limited government that upholds the rule of law and unleashes the power of free markets. We need answers: When did Congress agree to pour $50 billion into General Motors? Why was the company able to bypass the usual bankruptcy procedures? Were individual investors treated as fairly as labor unions were? These questions have yet to be answered.
What is clear is that federal policies helped create the mess the industry is in. For decades, the government has told automakers what types of cars they can build. Even as GM and Chrysler were heading toward bankruptcy this year, Congress passed a bill demanding higher fuel efficiency standards, a move that ignores the fact that virtually all the profits these companies have earned in recent years came from big sport utility vehicles.
The same thing is true in the mortgage industry, where policymakers spent decades insisting that companies including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac solve a "housing crisis" (supposedly low rates of minority ownership) that didn't exist. Both of those companies are, like GM, now on the federal dole, with little hope of ever repaying the tens of billions they've borrowed.
Conservatives do not need to reinvent conservatism. What we need is to refocus conservatism to implement its popular and effective principles. That's the best way to preserve vital freedoms for future generations.
• Edwin Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a public policy research organization.