David Brooks makes sense here. He wants to redirect our debate about the role of government in the United States from the issue of “size” to the issue of “influence.” Here is a taste:
National destinies are not shaped by what percentage of G.D.P. federal spending consumes. They are shaped by the character and behavior of citizens. The crucial issue is not whether the federal government takes up 19 percent or 23 percent of national income. The crucial question is: How does government influence how people live?
There have been cases when big government has encouraged virtuous behavior (in the U.S. during World War II), and cases when big government has encouraged self-indulgence and irresponsibility (modern Greece). There have been cases when small government was accompanied by enterprise and development, and cases when small government has led to lawlessness, corruption and distrust.
The size of government doesn’t tell you what you need to know; the social and moral content of government action does. The budgeteers and the technicians may not like it, but it’s the values inculcated by policies that matter most.
The best way to measure government is not by volume, but by what you might call the Achievement Test. Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives? Over the years, America has benefited from policies that passed this test, like the Homestead Act and the G.I. Bill. Occasionally, the U.S. government has initiated programs that failed it. The welfare policies of the 1960s gave people money without asking for work and personal responsibility in return, and these had to be replaced. The welfare reforms of the 1990s involved big and intrusive government, but they did the job because they were in line with American values, linking effort to reward…
Read the rest.
Tom Van Dyke says
Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives?
This is still the “progressive” vision, where government—which is inherently artificial—subsumes “society,” which according to Burke, has at least some claim to being organic.
Does a given policy propagate liberty and/or subsidiarity, which foster 3 of the 4 facets above organically?
[Education, fostering “skills,” may be seen as a proper function of government. May be.]
And secondarily, the size of government is definitely a factor beyond technocratic utilitarianism. The bureaucracy is a necessary evil, but as we see in both the developed world [Greece] and in the underdeveloped [corruption as a way of life], it's inherently parasitical. It feeds no one, it creates no wealth: it consumes it.