The Agenda

Michael Greve’s Post-Election Thoughts

Michael Greve, a law professor at George Mason University and author of The Upside-Down Constitution, wrote a really interesting post last week. He begins by invoking what he has called America’s “transfer state predicament,” the central theme of his recent essay on “Constitutional Moments“:

Unsustainable entitlement programs. A socialized housing market. BIG PAP. Intergovernmental blockades, duplication, and collusion. An inconstant government that has forfeited citizens’ confidence. We built those institutions in an era of prosperity, when and because we thought we could afford them. That era has come to an end. But the institutions are far too entrenched to be dislodged in the course of ordinary politics. They would have to be reconstructed. What would that look like?

In his post, Greve offers two ways out:

For advanced democracies in the transfer state predicament, there are only two ways out. One is a responsible Social-Democratic party that is (1) cognizant of the fact that a wrecked economy would also wreck its constituencies and (2) capable of holding labor unions in line. Successful reform countries—Canada, Germany, Sweden, and (more arguably) Brazil—all  have that dynamic in common. America had but forfeited that chance in 2008, with Mr. Obama’s victory over Mrs. Clinton. The moment is gone for good, and Mrs. Clinton (should she enter the 2016 sweepstakes that started yesterday) will go nowhere. 

My assumption is that many of our left-leaning interlocutors continue to believe that social-democratic reform is the most promising and the most likely approach, hence the venom often directed against advocates of limited government — the right is seen as a dangerous obstacle to progress and stability. Greve offers a somewhat different perspective, albeit one that hardly celebrates the U.S. right as it currently exists:

The only other way out is a political force that offers a competing social model. That force, and that model, does not now exist—largely, I suspect, on account of our grimly professional politics. Conservatives felt compelled, for eight long years, to defend the Bush administration, an exercise that left them exhausted and compromised. After 2008, they should have done what opposition parties normally do—rethink, and regenerate. Alas, there was never any time for that: all the energy went into a fight against Obamacare, stimulus bills, etc.

The natural temptations is to keep it up: the people voted for “the people’s House” to keep taxes low. Maybe. But they also voted to keep benefits high, and so there’s the problem. A responsible opposition, it seems to me, would have to start at the opposite end—not with some clever promise to move crucial voting blocs (Hispanics, blue-collar Catholics), but with the truth: the country is broke. Our institutions are broken.  Our economy is on the ropes. To fix the mess, you must give up something; but we have a plan that makes it worth your while.

That pretty much sums up The Federalist. The difference between Publius and us is the willingness to tell the truth, and the plan.

Some conservatives will no doubt object, as they see the Tea Party movement as precisely the political force Greve has in mind. But Greve is more skeptical, particularly in light of the Tea Party constituency’s devotion to old-age entitlement programs as currently constituted. 

I can’t say if Greve’s rather stern advice to conservatives makes much sense on narrowly political grounds, but it has the virtue of being rooted in an awareness of the deep structural problems — and in particular of intergovernmentalism and the fiscal illusions it creates — that are the source of our long-run fiscal challenges.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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