Our Miss Brooks

Some time back, Tom Smith referred to the NYT columnist and pseudo-conservative David Brooks as “prissy little Miss Brooks.” Smith’s recycling of the appellation has not diminished its satirical effect — or its substantive accuracy.

Miss Brooks recently cringed when she contemplated an America without government, in the aftermath of a victorious Tea Party movement. Miss Brooks, it seems, is besotted with the manliness of limited-but-energetic governments

that used aggressive [emphasis added] federal power to promote growth and social mobility. George Washington used industrial policy, trade policy and federal research dollars to build a manufacturing economy alongside the agricultural one. The Whig Party used federal dollars to promote a development project called the American System.

Abraham Lincoln supported state-sponsored banks to encourage development, lavish infrastructure projects, increased spending on public education. Franklin Roosevelt provided basic security so people were freer to move and dare. The Republican sponsors of welfare reform increased regulations and government spending — demanding work in exchange for dollars.

Throughout American history, in other words, there have been leaders who regarded government like fire — a useful tool when used judiciously and a dangerous menace when it gets out of control. They didn’t build their political philosophy on whether government was big or not. Government is a means, not an end. They built their philosophy on making America virtuous, dynamic and great. They supported government action when it furthered those ends and opposed it when it didn’t.

I am surprised that Miss Brooks was able to recover from her swoon and finish writing the column in question. I am less surprised that Miss Brooks omitted to mention Thomas “Louisiana Purchase” Jefferson and Theodore “I Can Do Whatever I Please” Roosevelt, given that Jefferson was an effete Francophile and Roosevelt was a squeaky-voiced nutcase.

Other than that, there are only two problems with Brooks’s prescription for beneficent government: The first is the impossibility of electing only those leaders who know how to use government power judiciously. The second problem is the assumption that the things wrought by Washington, Lincoln, et al. were judicious uses of government power.

As to the first problem, all I can do is note the number of times that a majority of Americans has been convinced of the goodness of a candidate, only to be disappointed — when not outraged — by his performance in office. Take LBJ, Nixon, Carter, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama — please take them! –not to mention myriad Congress-critters and State and local office-holders.

The second problem is a problem for reasons that are evidentlybeyond Miss Brooks’s comprehension:

  • Government action isn’t cost-less. It absorbs resources that the private sector could have put to use.
  • Government officials, despite their (occasional) great deeds, are not gifted with superior knowledge about how to put those resources to use.
  • Private firms — when not shielded from competition and failure by governments — put resources to uses that satisfy the actual needs of consumers, as opposed to the whims (however high-minded) of politicians.
  • Private firms — when not shielded from competition and failure by government — use resources more efficiently than government.

In short, Miss Brooks, Washington may have been a great man for having led a rag-tag army to victory over the British, and Lincoln may have been a great man for having preserved the Union and (incidentally) freed the slaves, but neither man — and certainly no other man or collection of men exercising the arbitrary power of government — was or ever will be equal to the task of simulating the irreproducibly complex set of signals and decisions that are embedded in free markets.

In the end, Miss Brooks works herself into hysterics at the prospect of less government:

The social fabric is fraying. Human capital is being squandered. Society is segmenting. The labor markets are ill. Wages are lagging. Inequality is increasing. The nation is overconsuming and underinnovating. China and India are surging. Not all of these challenges can be addressed by the spontaneous healing powers of the market.

The social fabric is fraying precisely because government has pushed social institutions aside and made millions of Americans its dependents. Society is segmenting for the same reason, and also because millions of Americans are fed up with government and its dominance of their lives. Labor markets are ill and wages are lagging (compared to what?) because of various government actions that have slowed economic growth and caused (not for the first time) a deep recession. The nation is overconsuming (i.e., underinvesting) and underinnovating because of the aforesaid government-caused economic malaise, which (among other things) has reduced the demand for money (seen in the form of low interest rates) and the potential returns on innovative investments. That China and India are surging is no skin off our teeth; the more productive they are the less Americans have to pay for the goods and services they produce, and the more Americans can produce of other things — if government will only get off the back of American business.

None of these “challenges” would be challenges were it not for governmental interference in private social institutions and markets. As Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Amen.

So, Miss Brooks, I advise you to take two Valium and read Friedrich Hayek’s Nobel Prize lecture, “The Pretence of Knowledge.” Then pass it on to your politician friends.

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Columnist, Heal Thyself
The Economic and Social Consequences of Government