Talk about man bites dog news items.
Jacob Weisberg, Slate’s editor in chief, is a liberal, but he seems to have miraculously suddenly developed a healthy concern about the growth of government. I don’t believe there is the slightest possibility of Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi listening to any of this, but Weisberg’s Make It Stop editorial features both a refreshing dash of libertarianism and the kind of common sense which recognizes both consequences and limits and it is just not the kind of thing one normally ever finds being written by a commentator on his side of the debate.
At this point, Obama and the Democrats may be destined to learn the old lesson once again. But if they hope to avoid a repeat of Clinton’s 1994 fate in 2010, the president and his party might think about fixing a long-term upper limit on the size of government. Because of the bank bailouts and stimulus, federal spending will exceed 25 percent of GDP this year, and public spending at all levels will exceed 44 percent. But if liberals were clear that, in normal times, federal spending shouldn’t be more than 22 percent and that the public sector as a whole shouldn’t exceed a third of GDP—the level during Clinton’s second term—the fear of Democrats covertly foisting a social-democratic model on America would begin to melt away. This kind of ceiling would mean that government couldn’t grow at the expense of the economy, because it couldn’t grow faster than the economy as a whole. To substantiate his commitment, Obama should unilaterally propose large, specific cuts in programs and subsidies to be phased in as the need for stimulus spending recedes. Raising the retirement age, privatizing space exploration, and eliminating agriculture subsidies would make a decent start.
Beyond actually endorsing smaller government, Obama could identify himself with wiser government by developing the responsibility theme he sounded in his inaugural address but has returned to infrequently in the period since. Health care reform based on an individual mandate is a good example of government linking a private duty to a public benefit, but Obama hasn’t emphasized this “values” aspect of the plan. Another example might be to require public service work in exchange for extended unemployment benefits, on the principle of welfare reform. A nicotine-addicted president should also steer clear of paternalistic, class-tinged policies like taxing soft drinks. Letting personal behavior that doesn’t harm others slide means recognizing another kind of limit on government.
There’s a risk of harming the country by failing to address fundamental threats and problems—which is where current Republican policies would leave us. There’s also a risk of Democrats responding in a way that leaves behind more government than we want or need. Obama could help himself by letting people know he’s worried about that danger too.
I think most Republicans really would be fairly content, if an adequate portion of the federal budget remained reliably devoted to defense expenditures, to let the liberals have the equivalent of a spousal allowance, all the rest of the federal budget beyond defense to spend on the charitable, artistic, or environmental good works of their choice, as long as overall federal spending was not consuming so large a portion of the national economy as to curtail growth. But, would a liberal upper limit to government growth and spending ever be conceded by the American left? I have a lot of trouble picturing that.
The left would have to abandon its imperialistic drive toward limitless expansion of the state. It would have to relinquish its favorite tactic of demonizing its political opponents as selfish and greedy and its habit of identifying this year’s chosen socialist scheme as an absolute moral imperative. It would have to, at some point, stop demanding more and try to decide on reallocating what it already has, which seems far, far too difficult to ever happen.
Still, reading Weisberg today brings to mind a pleasant fantasy of a less divisive American political culture, one missing our own’s customary shrieks of hysterical accusation, one featuring occasional bipartisanship and overall rationality. That isn’t the world we live in, but it would be nice.