If you are reading this, then it is a pretty safe bet that you don't consider John D. Donahue the sort of guy you would enjoy getting cornered by at a cocktail party. After all, Donahue is the co-editor of a book called Governance Amid Bigger, Better Markets -- the sort of work that suggests the instructor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government might discreetly whip out a pocket caliper to make sure the store-bought canapés don't present a choking hazard to small children.
However, Donahue is just the sort of thinker story editors at places like the New York Times and New Yorker have embraced over the past three months, where it has been decided that (to borrow a phrase from current parlance) if government doesn't get a good deal bigger in the wake of September 11, and that if Americans don't start feeling real positive about trips to the DMV real fast, then the terrorists will have won. "After 50 years of market ascendancy, government may be poised to reclaim its role as an integral and admirable part of American life," wrote Donahue on the op-ed page of The New York Times this past Thursday. "Whether it does so depends as much on how we view our public servants as on how we finance our public institutions and the work they do." The article continues in this vein for several hundred words, saying that government has been "undervalued" for decades by Americans young and old and hoping that a cultural shift is taking place in which public service gets more respect and citizens start to see "solid protectors" in place of "feckless bureaucrats."
And Donahue is not the only one. Almost as soon as pundits found their footing a few weeks after the attacks, the good government -- or "goo-goo," in Washington wonk-speak -- drumbeat began, with the more smarty-pants members of the chattering class suggesting that Americans would, as if coming to their long-dulled and dormant senses, start to respect and value government again in the wake of September 11. The New Yorker, the New York Times' magazine, and the New York Times (to name a few) all threw in their two cents, with R.W. "Johnny" Apple taking a break from his plan to eat his way around the globe on the Sulzbergers' nickel to proclaim in a newsitorial from the White House that "big government is back in style."
It's hardly a new point, but with the spigot of opinion pieces on the subject still flowing, it bears repeating: September 11 didn't happen because there wasn't enough government, but despite too much government. Instead of providing for an effective common defense, the federal bureaucracy spent the last several decades meddling or attempting to meddle in far too many aspects of American life, from the appropriate size of the holes in Swiss cheese to how much water a toilet should use to do the job.
No wonder 19 foreign nationals could waltz into the country and teach themselves how to maintain level flight in a 767 without anyone in charge noticing something was amiss. And as far as September 11 promoting a new respect for government employees, well, it doesn't take a genius to understand that there's a big difference between the officials at the EEOC who make sure office Christmas parties don't get out of hand and the firefighters who charge into burning buildings.
Yet some people don't get this -- or, if they do, choose to ignore it in pursuit of their own agendas. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in yet another attempt to step out of the shadow of his junior partner, published an op-ed of his own recently in the Washington Post. It's titled (you guessed it) "Big Government Looks Better Now" and suggests that more government spending is the key to national security. After all, there's a lot of public infrastructure out there, and it'll take a lot of federal union members to keep it safe. As a result, says Schumer, waving his magic wand, "The era of the shrinking federal government has come to a close." (Where Schumer gets the idea that government spending, especially when divorced from fluctuating defense spending, has been declining since Reagan was sworn in, as he later claims, is another question.) And in Business Week, Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect wrote a piece titled (brace yourself), " The Economy Needs More Big Government -- Now." Never mind that Americans haven't bought the line -- sure to be pushed hard by Democrats during the mid-term elections next year -- that Bush has mismanaged the economy, even as he has won the war. According to Kuttner, the United States needs a high-speed rail network to take the burden off airports, with an added dose of public health spending to boot, to get things moving again.
There is one heartening thing about those members of the good-government left who use the attacks on America and the need for heightened vigilance during wartime and beyond as an excuse to further their cause. If these editors and policy wonks on the left are so obviously up to their old tricks already, then maybe the terrorists haven't won.