David Brooks’s latest atrocity, “The Role of Uncle Sam,” appears in The New York Times of yesterday. I quote, in relevant part:
[T]he federal [government’s] role [in the economy] has historically been sharply limited. The man who initiated that role, Alexander Hamilton, was a nationalist. His primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal….
But this Hamiltonian approach has been largely abandoned. The abandonment came in three phases. First, the progressive era. The progressives were right to increase regulations to protect workers and consumers. But the late progressives had excessive faith in the power of government planners to rationalize national life. This was antithetical to the Hamiltonian tradition, which was much more skeptical about how much we can know and much more respectful toward the complexity of the world.
Second, the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt was right to energetically respond to the Depression. But the New Deal’s dictum — that people don’t eat in the long run; they eat every day — was eventually corrosive. Politicians since have paid less attention to long-term structures and more to how many jobs they “create” in a specific month. Americans have been corrupted by the allure of debt, sacrificing future development for the sake of present spending and tax cuts.
Third, the Great Society. Lyndon Johnson was right to use government to do more to protect Americans from the vicissitudes of capitalism. But he made a series of open-ended promises, especially on health care. He tried to bind voters to the Democratic Party with a web of middle-class subsidies.
In each case, a good impulse was taken to excess. A government that was energetic and limited was turned into one that is omnidirectional and fiscally unsustainable. A government that was trusted and oriented around long-term visions is now distrusted because it tries to pander to the voters’ every momentary desire. A government that devoted its resources toward future innovation and development now devotes its resources to health care for the middle-class elderly….
In his engrossing new book, “Our Divided Political Heart,” E.J. Dionne, my NPR pundit partner, argues that the Hamiltonian and Jacksonian traditions formed part of a balanced consensus, which has been destroyed by the radical individualists of today’s Republican Party. But that balanced governing philosophy was destroyed gradually over the 20th century, before the Tea Party was even in utero. As government excessively overreached, Republicans became excessively antigovernment.
We’re not going back to the 19th-century governing philosophy of Hamilton, Clay and Lincoln. But that tradition offers guidance. The question is not whether government is inherently good or evil, but what government does.
Brooks begins by assuming that the Hamiltonian approach to government is the correct one: An assertion that Madison and Jefferson would refute.
Beyond that, Brooks ignores the evidence of his own analysis, which is that each aggrandizement of governmental power (economic and social) — beginning with Hamilton’s nationalism — fostered subsequent expansions of governmental power. It is a combination of ratchet effects and slippery slopes. The status quo is a baseline from which retreat is nigh impossible because of vested interests; the only possible next step, therefore, is an expansion of government to serve the newest “compelling need.”
Dionne’s so-called consensus never was a consensus. Consider, for example, the relative narrowness of FDR’s and LBJ’s “mandates,” which were in fact 60-40 splits. The fact of the matter is that the rules of the political game — as they have evolved through utter disregard of the real Constitution and the wishes of large segments of the populace — simply have allowed the accretion of power in Washington, even when there has been a “consensus” to diminish that power. I am, of course, thinking of the election of presidents like Harding, Coolidge, and Reagan by margins as great as those bestowed on FDR and LBJ.
If “government excessively overreached” — as Brooks admits — how could it be that “Republicans became excessively antigovernment”? It would seem that their (largely imagined) excessiveness is necessary and proper.
Nor should the “antigovernment” label be allowed to pass without comment. There is a difference between being “antigovernment” (i.e., anarchistic) and “pro-limited-government” (i.e., Madisonian and Jeffersonian rather than Hamiltonian). The “antigovernment” label is a cynical libel routinely deployed by the forces of big government in an effort to discredit those who are bold enough to point out that the expansion of governmental power has undermined social comity and prosperity. (The most cynical of efforts to discredit the opponents of big government occurred in the aftermath of Timothy McVeigh’s atrocious act in Oklahoma City. McVeigh was an antigovernment terrorist. And so it became the theme-of-the-month among the NPR crowd that everyone who is for less government is “antigovernment” and, by extension, a kind of terrorist.)
Brooks wants a limited government, but only if it is limited to a Hamiltonian scope. But the instant that government is allowed to exceed its brief, as it was when Hamilton’s “nationalism” became the central government’s leitmotif, the proverbial genie comes out of the bottle. It can only be stuffed back into the bottle by getting government completely out of the business of trying (in any way) to help business (except to protect it from domestic and foreign predators, of course).
Markets respond quite nicely to real needs, thank you. On the other hand, powerful governments (Hamiltonian and worse) respond to the capricious and costly commands of those who govern.
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