Big, Bad Government

Posted: Jul 19, 2011 12:01 AM
To quote The New York Times: There is across the land "both pessimism and cynicism about the state of [federal debt ceiling] negotiations in Washington, resignation about the partisan jousting, and more confusion than conniption about what exactly will happen" if there's no deal by Aug. 2.

Take, for instance, Stephanie Perone of San Francisco, "who was drinking wine with a friend during Friday's happy hour. 'I have no interest in it ... it's just the same thing over and over.'"

Well, maybe not, Ms. Perone, but it's easy enough to see why the crowd in the stadium is less than smitten with the efficiency of the players down on the field. That would be because the crowd is so vast and mixed and contradictory in its impulses as to make the players wonder how much they can get by with actually doing.

The politicians are committed formally to doing their best for us, but they can't figure out as a body what we want, inasmuch as we appear to want everything: tax, spend, cut, raise, go to work, go away.

We learn, not for the first time, that big government in a democratic society sometimes doesn't work worth a ... choose your own term of opprobrium.

The main thing is, it doesn't work. There's too much of it. You can't manipulate the constantly moving pieces in order to achieve general satisfaction. Someone's always displeased, not to mention mad enough to fling you out of office and replace you.

The present mess in Washington has less to do with money than with the things our money has been buying: regulation of business, subsidized mortgages, health insurance for all, subsidies for the elderly, subsidies to farmers, student loans, consumer protection, the advancement and affirmation of social outsiders (long after they've ceased to be outsiders), bread and circus games for anyone left out of all the fun. Liberal politicians are largely responsible for the vast superstructure of federal benevolence, but conservatives have gotten in their own licks, e.g., ethanol subsidies for independent or Republican Iowa farmers.

Once you've got all this stuff, how do you take any of it away: never mind the dimensions of the national debt? You talk about reform, but reform rarely gets past the talking stage.

At the start of our national conversation, the genius of Jefferson was to understand that government, on becoming a dispenser of favors, would constantly seek out new favors with which to win friends and oblige voters. Hamilton, with the highest of motives, centered on prosperity and national strength and pushed specific policies (e.g., a national bank) that would encourage commerce. A century later, statesmen decided it was time to do things for labor, too. Then it got to be time for bulking up the middle class with retirement protection and cheap mortgages. That brings us up to 2011 with the debt wars about which we read daily: sometimes in stupefaction, generally with annoyance. Can't these people get anything straight?

The current prescription for straightening things out -- a la Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor -- seems to many of us exactly what's needed to control the debt and put the work force back to work: stabilized or lower taxes, reform of Medicare, or strenuous work to reduce a current deficit of $14 trillion before it drags us down. Maybe something like this will happen after 2012, because the current head-butting in Washington virtually assures short-run perpetuation of the splits and divisions that got us where we are.

One thing we can count on: Unless miraculously we get on the small government track that Mr. Jefferson pointed out to our forebears, the demands of running Monster Government in behalf of an ever-larger population, with larger self-perceived needs than ever before, will overwhelm our heirs and descendants, whether conservative or liberal. Back we'll be eventually to where we are now: fighting over the spoils. The Stephanie Perone formula for coping doesn't sound so bad actually: a glass of wine to go with the angst.