The interview took place in Austin, Texas on October 12, 2023. Dr. Kevin Roberts is the President of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington D.C. He previously served as the CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and President of Wyoming Catholic College. The interview was conducted by Garrit Blizzard, Jackson Paul, Amber Williams, Zach Springer, and Ethan Xu. Below is a transcription of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jackson: My question is on what might be considered the newest major policy area, and that, of course, is AI. This has been an area where we’ve seen a lot of new development and, I think, a lot of need for new policy. The first question is related to the existential risk from AI, where studies have shown that among AI scientists, the median estimate that AI could result in some sort of extremely bad or extinction level outcomes is around 5%. What do you think the conservative approach to this is? Do you think there’s a role for government? What do you think the market should be doing around this general issue?
Dr. Roberts: Yeah, great question. You know more about AI than I do, and I hope that always remains the same– which gives you a really clear preview of what I’m going to say. I think the embracing of AI, without any sufficient thinking, is deplorable. I think that approach is unconservative. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a role for AI. I could go on a screed as a great books, Socratic, style teacher about the improper role of AI in the classroom and how it undermines intellectual integrity. But I’ll spare you that today and instead answer the core part of the question. Which, by the way, my colleagues Kara Frederick and Jake Denton would wax poetic about this, because they’re real experts, but all that to say there is a role for government. Heritage is conservative, not libertarian, and the role of government is not merely to preserve our rights and advocate for them, but it’s also to preserve the common good. And I see AI as an existential threat to the common good. Conservatives ought to be the leading advocates for how to regulate it, how to put it in its box, and use it for its proper end, which is to be a tool of human existence rather than to actually be something worse than that.
Jackson: On a general level, what approach do we use? What regulatory approach do you use to keep it in its box? Do you want [to limit] the sort of models that are trained, are you trying to limit usage, or how generally do you think we should be approaching that? What sort of things do you think we should be restricting and not restricting?
Dr. Roberts: Yeah, I won’t be specific, because actually, I haven’t thought about it, because I deplore the whole notion of AI, and I’m actually very proud to say that, because I think that for my generation of conservatives, Generation X, at least most of us, we think the embracing of it is extremely dangerous. We would be open to a lot more regulation at the federal level than we would be for other industries or other innovations. I’m hopeful, however, that it won’t require that because there is still some modicum of ethics by individuals. It’s just that you look at some of the last decade or so and it seems as if ethics among policymakers, individuals, and potential users of AI isn’t what it used to be. In other words, I’m a lot more concerned about, as a Tocquevillian, the deterioration of communities of ethical people than I am about what approach I would use and regulation. I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way, to your question, but I think that’s really where we’re…my focus is going to be, and I’ll leave it up to the conservative AI experts, chiefly Mrs. Frederick and Mr. Denton to decide.
Ethan: I had a question related to libertarianism and conservatism. Now, conservatism is really more about promoting the common good. So my question is about common good capitalism, the role of Catholic Social Teaching, and modern conservatism. So what are your thoughts on the growing impact of Catholics…
Dr. Roberts: Look, as a lifelong movement conservative and as someone who takes his Catholic faith seriously, I love the conversation that’s happening inside conservatism now by Catholic conservatives and non-Catholic conservatives, and that is, the purpose of business isn’t simply to make a profit. That by making a profit, it can also serve the common good. Someone who is, say, an agnostic capitalist might put that second part a little bit differently. They may say that it’s filling a gap, or addressing a need. Those are correct ways of putting it. But as a Catholic, I would understand it’s also promoting the common good. Where we have to be very careful, especially those of us who are politically conservative and seriously Catholic, is to draw a distinction between that which is 100% true and what, say, people who are promoting ESG argue for, which is some sort of stakeholder capitalism where the the purpose of capitalism is actually to promote some sort of concept of social justice. Those two things could not be more apart. And so I think the great thing about Heritage, among others, even though we’re non-sectarian, is we’ve always had this understanding about capitalism, given our credibility on defining the former. We have great credibility in bashing the latter.
Amber: So [you mentioned earlier] that school choice is one of your top priorities…
Dr. Roberts: It is my reason for existence in the policy world.
Amber: Can you help me understand why that has risen to the top with all of the other issues going on?
Dr. Roberts: Yeah, great question. Number one, because it’s a matter of justice. So, the United States has made, in its great history, so many promises that are more noble than almost any other society’s promises in the history of mankind. But it’s made one that’s unique– that is so novel– which is that every American, regardless of where they’re from, what color their skin is, what religion they are, and what they say, is guaranteed an equal opportunity to the finest education that has ever existed on Earth. There is no other country that has ever made that promise. There is no other country that is as pluralistic as ours, as diverse as ours– truly diverse– none of the nonsense that people on campus say. And school choice is the vehicle for delivering that. So for me, I just am inspired by the words of Martin Luther King, when, in 1963, he talked about paying the promissory note that America made to its children. He wasn’t just talking about black children. He was talking about all children. And that moves me to the second point, which is that school choice is disproportionately beneficial for young people who don’t have means. It disproportionately benefits the poor. So, as conservatives who ought to be motivated by a belief in a transcendental moral order in which every human person has equal dignity before God and, secondly, that the United States of America as a civil society is the closest thing to perfect to implement that, school choice is just a no brainer to me. So, the fact that there are people who call themselves conservatives and somehow don’t believe as fervently in school choice as we at Heritage do, is a huge mental disconnect for me. Finally, as an educator, I know that students benefit when parents are more involved in their education. In fact, that parental involvement is one of the three or four most determinative factors in education outcomes, and it has nothing to do with socio-economics. So you can have a single mom working two jobs in Harlem. If she’s involved in her young son’s education, involved in the Parent Teacher Association, taking him to tutoring, volunteering somehow, as she could in the classroom a few hours a month, just those simple things have a strong correlative effect on the outcome of that young man’s education. School choice should be such a slam dunk that we’re talking about all of the opportunities to create new schools, including public schools. I’m a public school guy. I went to this public university (UT Austin), which I still love– in spite of its warts. I actually think to sum up here, that school choice could also be a very unifying policy issue. It’s on the brink of being that because we’re really seeing some real erosion in the center-left of this wall that teachers unions have been able to build…and I like school choice for a lot more reasons before I would say anything political, but breaking the back of the teachers unions and the radical left is also very high on the list.
Amber: I remember learning that rural conservatives are also not for it because they felt like it was hurting their smaller communities that didn’t have as many private schools. But it was always confusing to me why everyone else wouldn’t see the benefits with it. It sounds like maybe there’s some teacher union…
Dr. Roberts: Yeah, look, I have a lot of friends who are rural conservative legislators in [the Texas] legislature, and I really respect them. For the most thoughtful of them, that’s not a made up explanation, right? They say two things. Number one, schools are really important in their communities beyond just the educational benefits. Their schools tend to be better, culturally and educationally. I’m gonna come back to that point in a minute, and I’m a football guy so I think the Friday Night Light effect is great. If schools are unified with community, that’s actually awesome, and we ought to celebrate it, and we ought not do anything that undermines it. But the second thing that they say is that their communities are so unpopulated and that there would never be a private school that could come in and benefit from school choice. We actually know that that’s just not the case, especially with the advent of microschools and, also, we have school choice legislation that allows homeschooling families to use it, right? Ultimately, the way to respond to those things is “Don’t you trust your constituents to make a better choice for the future of their child, than a system that is part of a very centralized system in Austin and DC.?” The most intellectual guys know that the time has come.
Zach: You mentioned earlier that you’re an avid Tocquevillian. I also like the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville. What specifically crossed my mind was what are some things that the state can do to empower mediating local institutions and ameliorate the problem of growing atomization? Where no one is really engaged in their traditional mediating institutions, and this seems to undermine the common good. So what policies could realistically…
Dr. Roberts: Yeah, great question. So, this won’t be exhaustive, but this will maybe at least wet your whistle. So, I’ll put my responses in two buckets, one of them at the federal level, and then one at the state level. Hopefully, why I’m doing that will be clear. On the federal side, most of what needs to happen is that government needs to get out of the way. So just right off the top of my head, here are examples of government getting very much in the way and crowding out those mediating institutions. Right here in the great city of Austin, Texas, we discovered, at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a few years ago, as we were trying to figure out how we improve policy toward the homeless, how, in other words, we diminish the number of people who are homeless. There are many factors there– including poor choices by individuals– to be clear. Aggravating that was a series of federal policies by Republican and Democrat administrations and congresses that made it very difficult, if not impossible, for more third party organizations to be the lead responder to homelessness. In Austin, it was reported to us that that was particularly the case for faith-based providers. This was under the Trump Administration. So, the Trump administration wasn’t making it more difficult for those providers. The Bush administration wasn’t. Texas Professor Marvin Alaskey was head of that office, and he is very much a faith based guy. It was the city of Austin. It was the local government. So the federal government needs to make explicit that these local governments can’t make it difficult or impossible for faith-based providers to be involved. Now, this is a pluralistic society. It can’t just be faith-based providers either. That’s just the law of the land. But we need organizations other than government addressing that. The second would be education for reasons that we were talking about earlier. The third would be health care, which I think is self explanatory. But what we ought to have is a health care system that’s built along the lines of Medi-Share and all these health sharing ministries. You could have one for atheists, I don’t care, but let people associate along the lines of affinity that they have. And in all of these industries, on the state side, so the federal work is basically getting government out of the way. On the state side, we actually think at Heritage, we’re working on this research now, that as it relates to what’s called Family Policy, state legislatures, at least initially, ought to have a bigger say there. And so we think, very related issue, which is the marriage rate and birth rate, that there can be some incentives that state legislatures can experiment with there, but also the state of Texas unintentionally gets in the way of some of these providers, the biggest example I can think of, other than education, is foster care. Because of the work of one of our former colleagues at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Andrew Brown, that’s largely come to an end. So, we have good news to report there. When you, from the right of center politically, do the following things, you aren’t ideological about it– so we developed a coalition that went pretty deep left of center– you analyze the problem, you come up with really sound solutions, you use what I call radical, incrementalism– so in one legislative session, get what you can, and then come back and get more– you actually can win on these things. I think that there’s a lesson there for the conservative movement.
Garrit: Dr. Roberts, Vivek Ramaswamy spoke to campus earlier today, and he spoke about how young people are the future of this country. I wanted to ask, firstly, what role do you think young people play, specifically, in the conservative movement, and what more can the GOP and leaders in the conservative movement do to dissuade young people from embracing the left?
Dr. Roberts: Yeah, great question. Well, on the first one, I’ll just state the obvious. Young people are vital, but not just in terms of numbers. They’re vital intellectually. Because even in the first question about AI, I’m sure y’all are going to go back to your apartment or dorm and say, “Roberts just doesn’t even get it.” He doesn’t. He doesn’t want to. I couldn’t care less. So there are things that you couldn’t care less about. And maybe I’m right, and you’re wrong. But the point is that having that intergenerational conversation will allow us over the next five or 10 years to develop a policy and political program that reflects the country. By that, I mean, I think the country is two-thirds conservative, or at least two-thirds not radical left. Your generation on that point is really good at saying you may not want to use certain labels in order to define that. Now, until my last breath, I’m gonna be talking about the conservative movement. But maybe as a result of your generation becoming more involved in that movement, whatever you want to call it, will be more savvy about it. The last thing I will say, among many, is I laud your generation for a lot of things, as many people like to decry it. You are extremely empathetic to other humans, and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s a great American tradition. But it’s one that lives loudly in your generation that I think conservatives, who can be a little crusty and a little heartless, need a reminder that we ought to lead with the opposite, which then gives us the opportunity to talk about duty and responsibility, much of the way that Vivek frames it. Then we’re a lot more open to this appeal to patriotism in the way that that debate puts it. So, many other reasons, too, but that will be it. The second point, I think we have to ask good questions. A lot of times we lead with data. A lot of times we hear, “Don’t lead with data, tell stories,” and then we tell these hokey stories, and your generation just tunes us out– as you should. Instead, we ought to be really authentic, and the best way to authenticity, in let’s say just an individual friendship, is to get to know the person. So, if we walk out here, and y’all say, “We’re The Texas Horn,” and I say , “I’m the President of the Heritage Foundation,” people will start chirping at us. We want to get our hackles raised up, and we want to confront them, but the best thing to do is start asking a series of questions, not like law school, but help me understand the basis of your claim. Help me understand what I’m missing, and I think your generation is skilled at that because of the environments that you’ve been in, in schools and others. People…my generation just wants to punch those folks in the nose. That’s not how we’re going to build the movement. So interestingly, the way to dissuade other members of your generation who don’t have the correct thought that the five of you do to that correct thought is actually to get to know them. That’s hard, right? It’s not a TV ad. It’s really hard. In a political sense, it’s also how you win elections. Because right now…one of the reasons we’re so polarized is because both the political left and the political right have become masters at how you move one and a half percent of the population using hyper, hyper, hyper, micro targeted social media. In fact, the answer to that is we’re going to see in the Iowa Republican caucuses on January 15, is person to person.
Garrit: What are some of the core principles that the conservative movement should stick with and not lose sight of? Because you do see this, you know, with new types of conservatism. You’ve seen a rise in more “populous” figures, and you’ve seen them clash with more of the “old guard” and maybe the more “Reaganite” wing of the party? What are some core beliefs that we do not need to lose going forward?
Dr. Roberts: Yeah, I’m a big proponent of what I call unhyphenated conservatism. I wrote something recently in the American Conservative, but much more important than anything that I said, is what Russell Kirk said. A few decades ago, he wrote this essay, which came from his book, The Conservative Mind, called the Ten Conservative Principles. They’re all still right, because they’re timeless. So, number one– always number one– there’s a transcendent, moral order. There’s a capital “T” truth, we can all know it. The fact that it’s harder for some Americans to know it now is a critique of the institutions that are responsible for inculcating that belief, not just schools and universities, but moms and dads. But it’s not hopeless, because if there’s a transcendent moral order, we’re almost powerless over it because it’s imprinted on our souls or if you prefer, our nature. Secondly, conservatives like to live in community, as much as anyone else, including liberals. It doesn’t mean necessarily that we’re all going to sign up for a socialist commune. It may mean that we want to have a little bit larger tracts of land and a little more elbow room and a safe neighborhood, but we are social and cultural beings. I think conservatism got hijacked, not by Reagan, but by people who invoke Reagan’s name for a particular altar, which is known as the free market. Now, I love the free market. The free market is an outgrowth of the proper belief in the transcendent moral order, healthy institutions. But it is not an altar that we bow to. I think Heritage given its credibility on free market thinking, offering some fraternal corrections about that. I hope it’s been helpful in the movement. We’re going to continue doing that because we happen to believe that’s right. And then, among other things, the proper relationship between the federal and state governments. It isn’t that we see no role for the federal government. It’s that we see the federal government is overreached in many respects, like the administrative state, and then, interestingly, doesn’t do its job and others, like the southern border. States have to step up. So, I think that your generation of conservatives, if you’re thinking about specific political action, you really should be thinking about what interstate compacts you want to lead. This will be particularly true if the Democrat nominee, who I don’t think will be Biden, wins the presidential election next year. It’s going to have to be one of our defense mechanisms. Is that going to be on healthcare? Is it going to be on the border? That’s a proper understanding of federalism, and it hasn’t always been the case that American understanding of federalism and conservatism were so intertwined. They are philosophically but sometimes there’s some daylight in terms of political policy programs. They are completely intertwined right now, and at least for the time being, they need to remain so, which is a way of saying that for some of our friends on the right, of who we respect, we love the impulse, we love the mentality of burning it all down, we get it and yet, there still has to be proper constitutional order because that proper constitutional order is the way that America has implemented the transcendent moral order. We can’t do that.
Jackson: So obviously foreign policy is in the news a lot right now with what has been going on in Israel. I was organizing the Young Conservatives of Texas’s pro-Israel demonstration yesterday, and I got the expected response from some very angry Palestinians. But my question is: Heritage’s traditional position on Israel is to, obviously, support them for our interest and because of justice, but that doesn’t mean we get involved in another “endless war” in the Middle East. Can you compare and contrast this to [Heritage’s] position on the situation in Taiwan and the situation in Ukraine, because on those three somewhat similar situations, you take… somewhat different lines about how much the US should be involved in supporting [the] Ukrainian or the Israeli or the potential Taiwanese war effort. So, I don’t necessarily want to hear your particular thoughts on each of those, because Heritage has been kind of clear on that. What is the general philosophical approach as to how you balance America’s interest in defeating foreign adversaries like China and Russia, America’s interest in not getting involved in direct war, if at all possible, and their interest in supporting justice for our own sake and for the cause of justice itself?
Dr. Roberts: You know, what a well formulated question. I should say, before I dive in, that one of the ways we can attract more young people to conservatism is to keep talking about this national security position. I’m often asked by concerned big conservative donors, what do we need to do that can attract young people to conservatism? I’ve learned just out of kind of dumb luck, this national security position that we’ve articulated in the last two years is one of them. But I’ll come right to it. Look, our philosophy on national security rests on the first and most important question, what’s in the interest of Americans first? Sometimes less thoughtful journalists than yourselves will take that to mean that’s isolationist? Not at all. In fact, it could mean quite the opposite. What it means is that we recognize that in the United States, we have four times the debt to GDP ratio in the 2020s than we did in the 1980s. We couldn’t afford one full scale war. We definitely can’t afford two, and we sure as heck can’t afford three. So, we believe it’s…we’re not even restrainers as much as we are realists about that situation and about our military industrial base, which has been ravaged by greed and terrible policy and K Street lobbyists. So, we say you prioritize these: Israel and the UK will always be the most important countries for Americans. Always. That’s just history. Taiwan is not far behind because of the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party, the greatest adversary to Americans in the history of this country. Ukraine is very important. We obviously want them to win, but they’re a distant third. I was asked recently, well, you know, what about troops on the ground? Would you support that in Israel? Yeah. I mean, I hope that doesn’t happen. But probably by this weekend, or next, there will be American special forces on the ground and Heritage will celebrate it because there are Americans on the ground and have to be rescued, we always ought to go get them. If the Chinese decide to misbehave, and saber-rattle towards Taiwan, we would be very supportive of sending yet another fleet of ships to Taiwan. That means that unfortunately, lamentably, tragically, the Ukrainians are going to have some tough sledding. Then it’s incumbent upon the Germans and French, who like to wag their finger at American conservatives, to actually pull their weight and shut their damn mouths– which is the second time I’ve told them that.