When I was about four years old, I was having dinner with my family and eating spinach. Being a slightly unnatural child, I’d always liked spinach, but developed an odd way of eating it: I’d take a mouthful, chew, lean way over to the left, swallow, take another mouthful, chew, lean way over to the right, swallow, etc. My mother was used to a fair amount of inexplicable behavior from her younger son, but this eventually caught her attention, possibly because she feared I was suffering from vertigo. When she inquired, I responded that spinach is well known as a source of physical strength and muscular development — such was the inescapable influence of Popeye cartoons in the 1970s — and that while gravity could be counted on to deliver spinach-y benefits to my lower extremities, I wanted to make sure plenty got to my arms, thus the leaning. To a four-year-old, that was a perfectly sensible thing to do. My understanding of human anatomy was literally skin-deep — everything deeper was unknown to me.
We only know what we know.
Twenty-odd years later, I was visiting my mother and making dinner for her: spinach crepes. Being a southern woman, she was incurably suspicious about anybody else operating in her kitchen, and she peeked over my shoulder as I chopped the spinach: “What’s that?” she asked. I told her that it was spinach, and her face went blank for a second — and then I could almost literally see the metaphorical light bulb going on. She’d never seen fresh spinach before. Or, almost certainly, she had — I bought the spinach at the same place she habitually bought her groceries — but her formative marketing experiences had been in the 1940s and 1950s, in small towns in the Texas panhandle, and to her spinach was something that came in a can marked “Del Monte,” as soggy and densely packed as seaweed. She’d probably been walking past fresh spinach stocked next to the iceberg lettuce for years, but it was not part of her mental matrix.
On Tuesday, the president of these United States called for an end to the “rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government,” so that he might move forward with his economic agenda uninhibited by “stale political arguments.” It was an interesting moment. The president’s childlike faith in his own ability to direct resources according to his own vision is almost touching in its way, though when the actual costs are accounted for it is terrifying. The president’s understanding of how the economy works is about as sophisticated as was my understanding of anatomy and nutrition at the age of four: Lean this way and we’ll strengthen the middle class, lean that way and we’ll nourish the working poor. He doesn’t even understand the debate that he wants to preempt: It is not only a question of the size of government but a question of what government does.
He only knows what he knows.
The questions we habitually ask —“Is the government spending too much? Is it spending enough?” — are without meaning in and of themselves. It matters what the government is spending on. Spending X percent of GDP to defeat Hitler is one thing, spending it to subsidize Solyndra is another. Government must always be recalibrated in light of current conditions: war or peace, boom or bust, expansion or decay. The debate about the size and scope of government can be “stale” only if you fail to understand that its relevance is constant and eternal.
Progressives like to frame the argument about the size and scope of government as Thomas Hobbes vs. Ayn Rand: Every step toward decentralization and deregulation is in their view a step toward chaos, the war of all against all. To the progressive, there can be no meaningful move toward liberty (save in the case of sexual license), only a dangerous slide toward anarchy. There is some irony in that: Progressives fear what they call “Social Darwinism,” which to the extent that it ever has existed as a coherent worldview has been associated with progressives, who translated it into policy in the form of horrific eugenics campaigns and forcible sterilizations. Progressives are smart people who never learn: Their characteristic fallacy is the belief that if a little bit of government is a good thing, then more must be better. Again, the level of understanding is childlike: Some 60,000 Americans are treated for vitamin toxicity each year, many of them children who think of their chewables the way I thought of spinach, and down an entire bottle. (The effects of doing so seem to be less severe than you might imagine.) The body can benefit from only so much vitamin C, and the body politic can benefit from only so much government.
Well administered, a little government is an excellent thing. It protects property, sees to the enforcement of contracts, defends the borders, keeps the streets safe. Even those “stale political debates” that fill the president with sighs have their place: Government is an art, not a science, and it cannot be plotted out via mathematical formulas. How much government is too much? How little too little? That depends to some degree on the complexity of your economic environment (software patents aren’t stray chickens), the scope of your borders, and the number of your streets. How much government is enough when you’re trying to keep crime under control? It depends on whether you’re in New York City or Muleshoe, Texas. How much government is too much when you’re trying to steer extraordinarily complex markets, such as the ones involved in electricity generation? In that case, $1 is too much, because it is $1 spent on something that government not only should not be doing but in fact cannot do. From Soviet central planning to the Spanish green-energy racket to the U.S. housing bubble, one of the inescapable lessons of economic history is not that government should not attempt to steer industries but that government cannot steer them in any predictable and productive fashion. “Should not attempt” is a second-order conclusion, deriving from the fundamental condition of “cannot.”
I have spent a fair amount of time around elected officials, regulators, and the like, and when I see them, I think: space monkeys. The first monkey to make it into space was called Albert II, who went up on a V2 rocket. Albert II survived the space flight but not, unlucky little beast, the parachute failure that followed. We primates are in a sense one big family, and the first of us to see the majesty of our little corner of the universe from a vantage point beyond the surly bonds of Earth was a rhesus monkey, the stars laid out like a trail of diamonds before his uncomprehending eyes. The complexity of even the simplest markets is as far beyond the understanding of any politician or bureaucracy — or any single human mind — as astrophysics is beyond a rhesus monkey. Politicians steer the economy like Albert II steered that rocket. It isn’t just that they don’t know which levers to pull at what time — they’re clever enough — but that the thing itself is so incomprehensibly complex as to be effectively unknowable to them.
Let’s hope our parachute is in good order.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.