The Agenda

The Brooks Bargain

David Brooks’ latest column calls for a new bargain between right and left:

In this framework, Democrats would get a lot of the good ideas that are in the Obama budget, but they’d be bigger and more aggressive. We’d take the pre-k initiative, the spending on scientific research and the infrastructure spending. But then we’d throw on top other programs. Make more men marriageable (by helping them earn a reliable wage). Rebind the social fabric in atomized communities (social entrepreneurship funds). Maybe expand a national service program to give more young adults discipline, orientation and connections.

Republicans would get structural entitlement reform. Here, too, we could build on the ideas in the Obama budget, like chained Consumer Price Index for Social Security and the expansion of means-testing for Medicare. Then we could throw on other modest structural reforms: Combine Medicare Parts A and B and further limiting Medigap plans in order to induce seniors to make more cost-conscious decisions. Repair federal pensions and the disability system. Means test Social Security and raise the Medicare eligibility age for affluent workers.

This deal wouldn’t represent the moderation of the mushy middle. It would represent muscular moderation that is bold on both ends. Persuade majorities that discretionary spending is not just foreign aid and earmarks. It’s the government’s best shot at boosting social mobility. Remind Americans that their country can’t be a rising nation if we have an entitlements system fit for an aging and declining one.

Right now, we’re stuck in a political debate in which a federal government that spends, say, 24 percent of GDP represents tyranny while a federal government that spends 19 percent of GDP represents a free society, irrespective of state and local expenditures, tax expenditures, off-balance-sheet activities, and the cost of regulatory initiatives. The end result is that we have endless debates over spending levels while ignoring, for example, the shadow nationalization of the mortgage market and the perverse buck-passing dynamic created by cooperative federalism programs that fuels the growth of state and local government.

All other things being equal, I’d prefer a federal government that spends less rather than more, but not if it means that the federal government instead uses credit guarantees to expand its influence, or that it will use some combination of bribes and mandates to compel state and local governments to implement programs dreamed up in Congress. If our goal is to allow civil society to flourish, we ought to focus more on the scope of government and not just its scale. This is an argument Peter Berkowitz makes very effectively in Constitutional Conservatism:

Constitutional conservatism well understood does not mandate particular policies or command specific laws, but it does bring into focus the overarching aims and larger considerations that, in a free society, should inform policy and underlie law. It insists that federal laws and government programs involve a legitimate exercise of a constitutionally-grounded government power. It emphasizes that government initiatives and actions must promote and not weaken self-reliance, personal responsibility, industriousness, innovation, thrift, and the other virtues of liberty. It supports government undertakings that invigorate families, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and religious communities while opposing government undertakings that enervate them. And it seeks to reduce the tasks performed by the federal government that, although in the federal purview, would confer greater public benefits if performed by more local forms of government, civil society, or the private sector.

That there is a meaningful distinction between government undertakings that invigorate civil society and those that enervate is a fact that merits close attention. Despite a decline in violent crime over the past two decades, violent crime levels in the U.S. remain far higher than they had been at midcentury, and far higher than they are in other advanced market democracies. Spending more and more effectively to reduce violent crime is a perfect example of a government undertaking that invigorates neighborhoods. The same goes for measures like the earned income tax credit that are designed to boost labor force participation, and thus help individuals build the skills they will need to eventually achieve economic independence. When conservatives turn against programs like the EITC on the grounds that it is an expensive transfer, they neglect the important fact that it is a transfer that socializes poor individuals, many of whom were raised in disrupted households without parents who worked steadily in the formal economy, into the world of work, and in doing so generates substantial spillover benefits. 

My disagreement with David, and it’s a small one, is that while I’m comfortable with a federal government that does more and spends more to see to it than poor individuals can find work (a goal that might entail nominal output targeting and wage subsidies, etc.), I do think it’s important to limit the scope of the federal government, as Berkowitz suggests. And so I’d be more inclined to devolve authority over early childhood investment and surface transportation to state governments, among other things. It is also true, however, that while increases in entitlement spending are hard to reverse, increases in discretionary spending might be somewhat easier to rollback, so shifting from the former to the latter might give national policymakers more flexibility. That’s no small thing. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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