Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Missing (and Proving) the Point

David Brooks column today is a good one, but it has already stirred a bit of ire from some libertarians who in some way prove his point. The column is about how we are not as hardy thinkers as we used to be, not allowing for any thought that just might upset our mental applecarts. Here's a taste

The ensuing mental flabbiness is most evident in politics. Many conservatives declare that Barack Obama is a Muslim because it feels so good to say so. Many liberals would never ask themselves why they were so wrong about the surge in Iraq while George Bush was so right. The question is too uncomfortable.

There’s a seller’s market in ideologies that gives people a chance to feel victimized. There’s a rigidity to political debate. Issues like tax cuts and the size of government, which should be shaped by circumstances (often it’s good to cut taxes; sometimes it’s necessary to raise them), are now treated as inflexible tests of tribal purity.

It's a worthwhile read because what Brooks is getting at is that we are less willing these days to really use our brains and think about the beliefs we hold in a critical light. Instead, we want our beliefs to be confrimed, we want to have the feeling that we are always right and that we never have to change a thing.

As if on cue, Matt Welch replies with a snarky post calling Brooks a lover of big government. He takes Brooks quote on the issue of taxes and the size of government, and makes it sound like Brooks is saying that any talk about free markets is bad and any talk of government (as well as higher spending and higher taxes) is good:

So after a decade of hysterical growth of government at all levels, which has left us with a crappy and unimproving economy, unprecedented debt and deficits, and a long-term fiscal outlook too horrifying to contemplate, it is a demonstration of confirmation bias, herd thinking, and inflexible tribal purity to question the continued growth of the state. I sure do hope that David Brooks is good enough to let us know when it's okay to come outside and criticize big government again. Though judging by his track record–whether 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2008, or 2010–it may be a long time coming.
I think this is a rather unfair assessment.  Brooks isn't saying that we should never question government spending.  Anyone that has read Brooks over the years know that he tends to favor smaller government.  But he is saying to both those that favor smaller government and those that favor larger government that they need to step out of their ideological cocoons sometime.

And that is the problem with our political discourse these days.  On the conservative-libertarian side, there seems to be only one answer for everything: Government is always too big, it needs to be smaller.  Okay, I get that and tend to favor that.  But the problem is that it becomes the answer to things people aren't asking.  When it comes to things like the economy or housing or economic development, sometimes saying "let the market handle it" is not always sufficient.  So how can the government have a role that doesn't make it expand greatly or raise taxes?  Now that would mean using your grey matter.  But too many people don't actually want to think, lest they be branded as a traitor by their compatriots.

The same goes for liberals who think the government can solve everything and should regulate everything.  As E.D. Kain noted a while back, regulation can at times, lead to oligarchies that keep out smaller businesses.  Because of government regulation, niche breweries were shut out of the American market for years until President Carter deregulated the industry in the late 70s.  But again, we don't want to think outside of the box at times; we don't want to be accused being capitalists.

What Brooks has long advocated, and what I have agreed with, is that government has to be both small and active.  It has to be willing to provide some leadership to society issues, even if it is not the one that provides the answer.  Small government is great, but it is of no use if it is inefficient and not able to help when people do need it. 

It doesn't take much a brain to advocate for ever bigger government or to whack all government programs.  It does take thought in how to provide the government services needed and not expand government.

When America is able to get out its ideological cul-de-sacs, the we will become a more functional society again.

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