Two Columns Worth Reading

By Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

The first is by David Brooks, entitled “The Achievement Test.” Brooks argues that we’ve been mistaken to argue about the amount of government spending – rather, we should be paying more attention to what government does, and specifically the kind of society that it seeks to foster. I have a number of objections to aspects of this main thesis, but a few particular passages are quite penetrating in dismissing the usual Right/Left debate:

This hasn’t been a case of government corrupting capitalism or vice versa. The two have worked hand-in-hand. The government has erected a welfare state that, as Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard has pointed out, spends vast amounts on consumption (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, interest on the debt) and much less on investment (education, research, infrastructure), while pushing the costs on future generations. Meanwhile, the private sector has encouraged a huge increase in personal debt to fuel a consumption bubble. The geniuses flock to finance, not industry.

If we’re going to reverse this tide, it might be useful to put the Achievement Test back at the center of politics. This would help focus the national mind on the fundamental challenge: moving from a consumption-dominated economy oriented around satisfying immediate needs toward a more balanced investment and consumption economy. It might also cut through the gridlocked trench warfare between big-government liberals and small-government conservatives.

I think Brooks is quite correct to argue that the usual Liberal/Conservative narrative obfuscates the collusion between government and industry in encouraging a culture of debt, short-term thinking and narrow individualistic utility. This argument can’t be made often and insistently enough, as it must be constantly repeated if it is to have even the faintest chance of undermining the massive investment of politicians, interest groups, media and industry in perpetuating the typical Left/Right narrative.

But Brooks is too enamored of, and enchanted by, the idea that government can be the source of our virtue. He asserts that what matters is not the percentage of GDP that government is spending – rather, what matters is the question of “how does government influence how people live?” Yet, I think he too easily glosses the question, “how does the character of the people influence the kind of government that we have?” At best, Brooks is only concerned with half of the necessary question, and perhaps even the less important part.

There’s a difficult chicken-egg conundrum here that isn’t easily reducible, but it’s simply overly simplistic on the part of many conservatives who seek to blame government for corrupting the one-time virtues of the American polity (and why I admire the passage by Brooks I’ve just quoted), but equally simplistic to suggest that better spending patterns by government will re-orient us to become a virtuous society. There is a deep and pervasive feedback cycle in a democracy, in which the demos makes demands upon the government and in turn the government seeks to influence the demos. If the government has become a largely corrupting force, in all likelihood the corruption was already well-advanced in the culture. I would submit that government tends to be a trailing indicator to the culture, not its leader. The corrupting temptations of government are likely a symptom – significant, I’ll grant – of advanced cultural decay. I’m all in favor of a better tax code, but to assume that the culture can be restored to virtue by means of tax reform is many steps too far. I think we largely have the government we have demanded (I just received my first solicitation from AARP – sigh – with its glaring and damnable promises to defend my social security “rights.”). Real reform must begin in our homes and neighborhoods; only at that point will we be in a condition to rightly order our polity.

Brooks needs to re-acquaint himself with Tocqueville, particularly those passages in Volume IV of Democracy in America in which Tocqueville describes how a society of people separated from each other and previous and future generations (as will be the tendency according to democratic mores) will finally only have the government as a source of comfort and succor.

I have had occasion to show how the increasing love of well-being and the fluctuating character of property cause democratic nations to dread all violent disturbances. The love of public tranquillity is frequently the only passion which these nations retain, and it becomes more active and powerful among them in proportion as all other passions droop and die. This naturally disposes the members of the community constantly to give or to surrender additional rights to the central power, which alone seems to be interested in defending them by the same means that it uses to defend itself.

As in periods of equality no man is compelled to lend his assistance to his fellow men, and none has any right to expect much support from them, everyone is at once independent and powerless. These two conditions, which must never be either separately considered or confounded together, inspire the citizen of a democratic country with very contrary propensities. His independence fills him with self-reliance and pride among his equals; his debility makes him feel from time to time the want of some outward assistance, which he cannot expect from any of them, because they are all impotent and unsympathizing. In this predicament he naturally turns his eyes to that imposing power which alone rises above the level of universal depression. Of that power his wants and especially his desires continually remind him, until he ultimately views it as the sole and necessary support of his own weakness. [II.iv.3]

Government alone is not the solution; it’s altogether likely it’s not the real problem. Its growth into every aspect of human life is the result of the logic of liberal democracy itself. Unless we attend seriously to these strong tendencies – resisting its logic of dissolution of ties, traditions, cultures, folkways, communities and memory – mere budget reform will be entirely besides the point.

The second column provides some texture to my claim. It entitled “How Little the U.S. knows of War” by Richard Cohen. Cohen – a veteran – ably describes the diminishing presence of military service, or personal knowledge of military personnel, in the lives of most average Americans. Thus, he argues, during the Vietnam war – when a draft was in effect – many Americans knew enough about the wastefulness and inefficiency of the military not to idolize it, whereas today we are surrounded by people who love the military but know nothing about it nor anyone serving in it. This is particularly the case with “conservatives,” who out of one side of their mouths denounce “gummint” for its inability to do anything well and out of the other side demand that we all engage in grandiloquent genuflection before the military. He notes that our widespread civic distance from the military now makes it possible for it to fight unpopular wars without any considerable civic unrest. It has also become largely immune from criticism – such as the sort that President Eisenhower was able to articulate in his “Farewell Address,” so recently well-discussed on the pages of The American Conservative.

At issue is a question that falls outside David Brooks’s central concern about government spending. In a polity in which we share civic obligations and engage together in the effort to secure the common weal, we are in fact less likely to be inclined toward imperial overreach, more likely to live within our means and be attendant to the needs of future generations, and altogether more cognizant of the consequences of our individual actions upon the polity as a whole. Such civic engagement can only take place at a relatively small scale. Long ago – in the disagreement between the Federalists and Anti-federalists at the very beginning of our polity – it was ferociously debated whether a “standing army” should be permitted, or whether instead the nation would be better served with local-based militias. The Founders won that argument – and our standing army is today very good evidence of that fact – but at the heart of the debate was not merely the question about military efficiency (which is how this question is today treated when it is occasionally raised), but the character of the citizenry and the nature of the polity. Brooks may be right (though I doubt it) that it matters not how much the government spends – so long as it spends it well – but I think he’s entirely wrong to think that the answer lies in the government being the source of civic virtue. Government will reflect the character of the citizenry, not vice-versa. We need, rather, to become better citizens in the places where we are, less reliant upon “government” and rather more reliant upon self-government.

We enter a time when every pundit in the land will have their attention turned upon the ferocious debates over spending. They are and will be important. But they will not be fundamental, since they are ultimately debates over how the irresponsibility will be apportioned, and not about how we will again become citizens and self-governors rather than consumers and wastrels.

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