David Brooks Gets It Almost Completely Right — Liberal Self-Indulgence Strangles Prosperity

UPDATE: Forgot the link.

NYT columnist David Brooks is not one of my favorite commentators.  It is not so much him, per se, but more how he is positioned in the marketplace.  He is the kind of “conservative” often used by liberal outlets to add a little (but not much) balance to their offerings. 

NPR, for example, has a weekly political round-up that features Brooks alongside E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post.  Great.  NPR’s view of balance is pairing a staunch liberal who dislikes Republicans with a squishy conservative who isn’t very fond of Republicans.  For the same reason, Brooks has a regular column at the NYT.

Anyway, let’s give credit where credit’s due. 

In yesterday’s column, Brooks addressed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to oppose construction of a new tunnel between his NJ and New York.  And in doing so, Brooks mostly nailed the problem.  Here are a few snippets, but do read the whole thing:

Christie argues that a state that is currently facing multibillion-dollar annual deficits cannot afford a huge new spending project that is already looking to be $5 billion overbudget. His critics argue that this tunnel is exactly the sort of infrastructure project that New Jersey needs if it’s to prosper in the decades ahead.

Both sides are right. But what nobody seems to be asking is: Why are important projects now unaffordable? Decades ago, when the federal and state governments were much smaller, they had the means to undertake gigantic new projects, like the Interstate Highway System and the space program. But now, when governments are bigger, they don’t.

The answer is what Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal once called demosclerosis. Over the past few decades, governments have become entwined in a series of arrangements that drain money from productive uses and direct it toward unproductive ones.

The cause of this “demosclerosis”?  Public employees’ unions and “governments [that] can’t promote future prosperity because they are strangling on their own self-indulgence” by paying public employees too much and giving them outrageously expensive benefits, such as 90% pensions at 50 years old, and paying 100% of health care insurance costs:

This situation, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, has been the Democratic Party’s epic failure. The party believes in the positive uses of government. But if you want the country to share that belief, you have to provide a government that is nimble, tough-minded and effective. That means occasionally standing up to the excessive demands of public employee unions. Instead of standing up to those demands, the party has become captured by the unions. Liberal activism has become paralyzed by its own special interests.

Very true.  Where I think that Brooks errs, however, is the very end, where he expressed his longing for “a political movement that is willing to make choices, that is willing to say ‘this but not that'” instead of the “antigovernment-types [that] perpetually cry less, less, less.” 

The reason I part company with this very good article at that point is that I think fiscal conservatism, when viewed fairly as opposed through the lens of a typical media caricature, is that political movement Brooks is longing for.  There are few conservatives that would like to simply do away with government entirely or slash its budgets randomly.  Instead, what we want is a responsible and reasonable level of government that sticks to the core responsibilities of government. 

We want a basic safety-net; but we don’t want wealth redistribution.

We want infrastructure; but we don’t want massive public works projects that never come even close to the proposed budget and are often as much about economic or social engineering (see green energy or high speed rail) or handouts to unions (see the “prevailing wage”) or congressional ego (see John Murtha) as building infrastructure.

We want public schools; but we don’t want overpaid unionized teachers that we cannot replace even where they are incompetent who perpetually demand more money for the same results.

We want environmental protection; but we don’t want social engineering or wealth transfer in the guise of environmental protection, and we don;t want environmental over-regulation to unduly stifle the economy.

We want sufficient regulation to protect consumers and investors from predators; but we don’t want regulation that limits reasonable options or imposes massive liability on producers to the detriment of the vast majority of consumers and the benefit of a small minority (and their trial lawyers).

And so on.  The point is not just “less, less, less.”  We really do want the government to do “this but not that,” and where we want the government to intervene, we want basic protections, not a system in which government essentially selects who wins and loses in the market.

Published in: on October 13, 2010 at 9:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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