Story Time With David Brooks and Paul Ryan

The wonky legislator and the cerebral columnist battle over the big-government narrative.

When Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) squared off against New York Times columnist David Brooks at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, the ostensible topic of debate was “How much government is good government?” But for a debate that supposedly centered on the proper size of government there was little jostling over limits to government’s size. Instead, the participants grappled with a different question: Is determining the correct role for government a matter of finding the right policy or the right narrative?

On the matter of government’s size, both Brooks and Ryan largely agreed that the federal government’s current fiscal situation was unacceptable, and that the Obama administration has overreached. And Brooks effectively endorsed a plan by Ryan and founding Congressional Budget Office director Alice Rivlin to reform Medicare and Medicaid, the nation’s largest sources of projected spending growth.

Yet there were contrasts as well. Ryan, the wonky administrator, emphasized the need for immediate legislative solutions in order to avoid a fiscal meltdown. “The numbers are vicious,” he said, underlining his contention that responsible governance should focus on responding to the grim math of the federal debt. Brooks, the cerebral cultural critic, responded that the key disagreement was not about particular policies, but about the narrative framework behind them, and he singled out Ryan’s “prose” outlining America’s stark fiscal choices as a problem.

It’s hardly in dispute that narrative matters in politics. The question is what story to spin. And the problem with the tale Brooks wants to tell—and sell—is that it’s the same one that’s led to the unsustainable fiscal situation he claims to want to fix.

For Brooks, the narrative that matters is that government, properly directed, can be a force for good, one that strengthens community bonds, counteracts social ills, and encourage the institutions of family and hard work. On several occasions, Brooks repeated his belief that the government’s job is to help citizens build “character.”

Good luck with that. It’s hard to restrain government under any circumstances, and even harder while singing its praises. The same entitlements that Brooks agreed were in need of drastic reform were products of this narrative: a belief that, with proper planning and expertise, the government could alleviate a wide array of social ills and instill a sense of virtue into the population. Instead, programs like Medicare and Medicaid have grown unwieldy and unsustainable.

The same can be said for Brooks’ preferred mode of discourse. Brooks contended that limited government advocates have hurt both themselves and the American polity by pursuing a rhetorical strategy that is firmly anti-government and anti-compromise. He singled out a line from a recent op-ed co-authored by Rep. Ryan and American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks saying that “the road to serfdom in America does not involve a knock in the night or a jack-booted thug. It starts with smooth-talking politicians offering seemingly innocuous compromises, and an opportunistic leadership that chooses not to stand up for America's enduring principles of freedom and entrepreneurship.”

One might take issue with the op-ed’s implication that America’s support for freedom and entrepreneurship has been unwavering. But Brooks contended instead that the real problem with that brand of stark rhetoric is that it allows no room for compromise. Yet the point of Ryan’s op-ed is hard to dismiss: When it comes to entitlements, well-intentioned compromise has frequently helped pave the road to fiscal ruin.

It’s what gave us Medicaid, a program that provides spotty health benefits (at best) yet is now threatening to explode state budgets anyway. A group of moderate Republicans supported the program based on the Brooksian notion that it represented a reasonable middle ground, and would forestall expanded government intervention in the health care sector.

The strategy didn’t work out too well. In 1965, its first year in operation, the program cost $9 billion in inflation adjust dollars. Today its total price tag is more than $500 billion.

And a bipartisan compromise between Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and Democratic legislators is what gave us the Massachusetts health care overhaul in 2006. Despite massive ongoing cost overruns, that program laid the groundwork for ObamaCare. The problem with emphasizing compromise is that it’s a tool, not a goal. If the policies fail, the compromise wasn’t worth it.

The same goes for narrative. Brooks’ idea that all options should remain open is a great way to start a discussion. But it’s less effective when you need to make decisions—which is what Ryan is trying to do. That's why Ryan’s story of stark policy choices, while less comforting, is also the better one. The numbers are vicious. Much as this English major might not like to admit it, eventually America has to stop telling itself stories and settle on policies to effectively contend with the math.

Peter Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • David Brooks||

    I was looking at the government's pant leg, its perfectly creased pant, and I was thinking, "I need you inside me."

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Big government makes Brooks tap his right foot in a bathroom stall.

  • Liberal Douchebag||

    Hooooomophobe!!!

  • David Brooks||

    I firmly believe that the only way out of our mess is a pleasant, feel good sounding narrative.

  • J||

    What unites David Brooks with his leftie colleagues at the NY Times is a fear of being ignored and becoming irrelevant. What they don't know is that's really already happened. When people lose faith in big government, they start to ignore centralized institutions. As Obama has shown, people who overestimate their importance HATE being ignored.

  • JoshINHB||

    What they don't know is that's really already happened.

    Well there's always war.

  • ||

    And a bipartisan compromise between Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and Democratic legislators is what gave us the Massachusetts health care overhaul in 2006. Despite massive ongoing cost overruns, that program laid the groundwork for ObamaCare.

    How did it lay the groundwork? If anything, it threw a wrench into the Obamacare works when fed-up Massachusettsers elected Scott Brown to the Senate over Martha Coakley.

  • Almanian||

    Yeah, I was so glad that happened, or Obamacare would have been passed into law.

    Wait a minute....

  • Romneyman||

    Yes, yes, keep buying my bullshit excuses for RomneyCare. If things works my way, those on the right and in the center will have three choices come primary season:
    1) Palin
    2) Huckabee (he supports education for children of immigrants. Oh dear!)
    3) Pretending RomneyCare isn't a disaster partly responsible for ObamaCare. That's easier to swallow if it's not seen as my doing. KEEP BUYING IT. You know my presidency would be slightly less disastrous than choices 1 or 2. Plus, I'm marginally more likely to beat Barry in 2012. Marginally. DON'T HOLD OUT HOPE FOR A BETTER GOP ALTERNATIVE. I'M YOUR ONLY ONE.

  • ||

    I so so hope the Republicans don't give Romney his "turn".

    Imagine a Rubio/Ryan ticket. Passion and policy. Hey I can dream.

  • Romneyman||

    I am counting on pessimists, or people who consider themselves realistic, like Tulpa.

    Note to Reason thread managers, if someone calls themselves "Mitt Romney," it's probably not actually Mitt Romney promoting himself.

  • ||

    I figure if a Chicago machine pol can present himself as a reformer, then why the hell not roll the dice on a dark horse. Rubio's young sure, and maybe he's not the right guy. But please someone who's gonna shake things up...not another boring older white guy in a suit, Romney's a Republican right out of central casting. Can't you feel the passion.

  • Romneyman||

    I have passion. Becoming a bland bureaucrat is my life long dream. BELIEVE.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Gary Johnson/Walter E. Williams (or vice-versa) ticket would be even better. Imagine the caterwauling from the left when a non-liberal black man is running to sit in The Big Comfy Oval Office Chair.

  • Realist||

    Yeah, Palin will fix the Republicans good!

  • Robert||

    When can we call it BaileyCare? Of course his excuse was that some form of national health insurance was inevitable, and it seems like he was right.

  • Almanian||

    compromise David Brooks is...a tool

    FIFY

  • ||

    It was fun debate to watch, though not really a debate in the traditonal sense. Some funny lines, too. You know Brooks is right -- but he is only right if you go back in time. He invokes Hamilton and his central bank, and Lincoln and the land grants (I was waiting for Eisenhower and the interstates, but that never came) as examples of how activist government can do good. The problem, of course, is that goverment is now doing things it SHOULDN'T do, like messing in markets and wholesale economic planning. Personally, I have no problem with the government funding certain things -- say basic science research that wouldn't get done by the free market -- and the keeping of economic statistics, and, of course, managing the defense of the country. But these are very limited, very circumscribed activities. Or take it from another perspective -- we've run out of the "big projects" that government could and should do. Finally, Brooks bemoaned our education system and rightly so. But here is where the voucher and free market system should really operate. Here government needs to get out of the way.

  • Sam Grove||

    say basic science research that wouldn't get done by the free market

    Such as better weapons for killing people (killer drones, plasma cannons, etc.)

  • ||

    You know, I consider myself a man of libertarian leanings, and then I read this crap -- and you wonder why some folks think libertarians are these wide eyed idiot anarchist who assume all government is bad. Gimme a break. Go read some Hayek and learn something.

  • ||

    You know, I considered you a man of libertarian leanings, and then I read this crap:

    Personally, I have no problem with the government funding certain things -- say basic science research that wouldn't get done by the free market -- and the keeping of economic statistics
  • ||

    Again, more unthinking idiocy in the mind of a certain strain of neanderthal folks who think they are libertarians. So, go through this thought experiment, although thinking may challenge you: a virus starts spreading. We're not quite sure where it comes from, but it's killing people. It's killing people who engage in fellatio and it's killing people who get penicillin. But not everybody. But it's killing people. So, who should find out about this viurs? Pfizer? Merck? Libertarian anarchists? Or maybe, just maybe, the Centers for Disease Control who have no other mission that to solve epidemiological problems, which no market oriented player will solve? But of course, you're so mentally challenged there's simply no way you can engage in this thought experiment because thinking is alien to you.

  • Yonemoto||

    How about a research university or nonprofit that is in the market not to make money, strictly per se, but to improve its reputation with impressive scientific discoveries?

  • ||

    Research universities get 90% of their research funding from government, such as NIH, DOE, DOD, NSF, etc. I agree with Karl K that funding basic science can be a legitimate function of government. It can be abused (see climate change) like any government funding, but in general science funding is not the sink hole that a lot of government programs are.

  • ||

    Hey douchebag, I'm fine with the government researching whatever it wants as long as it does it without STEALING FROM PEOPLE.

    You really have to be a special kind of idiot to think that you're not a libertarian if you think the state should be allowed to steal. I mean where do you draw the line? First its viruses, then its virus vaccines, then its emergency food and cash, then you have a welfare state. Either you reject the state's right to steal money from us, or you give the state the incentive to take more power. So fuck off you naive imbecile.

  • Robert||

    The CDC has no taxing power. So what are the people at CDC supposed to do, stop cashing their pay checks? The point is that we have a CDC, and the task posited by Karl K seems like one the CDC is eminently suited to.

  • ||

    Yep, it's official. You're a moron.

  • ||

    Heller, that is, not Robert.

    Yes, there are some roles government entities should have.

  • Ray||

    Someone who has the financial incentive to produce a cure as fast as possible.

  • ||

    Fire your spray tan people, David. He looks even smarmier than usual.

  • ||

    We need to stop seeing government as the mechanism and tool for doing the things that Brooks and Co want to do, such as "strengthens community bonds, counteracts social ills...build character", etc.
    A county executive in New York proposed forcing retail stores larger than 7,500 sqft to be closed from noon to 5PM on Thanksgiving. The reasons? “Thanksgiving is a traditional American holiday that is uniquely distinguished as a family day. . . is designed to help preserve an aspect of Thanksgiving that makes it such a special, bonding occasion.”
    Well. How about the customers who want to shop? Or the employees who need the money and might get paid time-and-a-half for working a holiday? Or people who have no family? Doesn’t work strengthen community bonds, counteracts social ills, build character? Also, keeping the stores open generates tax revenues. It goes without saying that the proposal’s supporters include retailers who close on Thanksgiving and thus lose business to competitors.
    The bottom line? Government programs’ original intent always expands. Let us make our own choices.

  • ||

    Car dealerships are closed on Sundays in Illinois. Years ago the big dealers squelched an effort to change that. Part of their argument, swear to God, was that car salesmen are the kind of people who rest on Sunday and spend time with their families. Oh yes, we all know the legendary probity and high morals of the car salesman.

  • Robert||

    So why only those larger than 7,500'2? Presumably because there are few of them and so much easier to police than all retail stores, even though only a minority of retail workers work in the larger stores.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    We need to stop seeing government as the mechanism and tool for doing the things that Brooks and Co want to do, such as "strengthens community bonds, counteracts social ills...build character", etc.

    Anyone like Brooks who has faith that government in and of itself can accomplish these things, is willfully ignoring the entire history of the 20th century.

    The strengthening of community/trust bonds, building of character, and counteracting of social ills has traditionally been accomplished only in small-scale communities, and only when the very culture of those communities was built on an inherent expectation that people would treat each other with fairness and decency--with the understanding that those who sought to destroy that trust would be shunned, jailed, or driven out of town.

    The type of society Brooks envisions is simply not possible in the large-scale, highly urbanized societies in which he finds himself to be most comfortable. These societies by their very nature and culture will inherently be much more socially dysfunctional and decadent, because they have the infrastructure to tolerate the types of parasitical and socially deviant classes that would normally rip smaller communities apart.

    It might have been possible for these cultural elements Brooks speaks of to exist in America's metroplexes, but that was over 110 years ago, when a very different set of WASP-ish cultural norms and philosophies drove national governance, and when the country's population was much smaller overall. Those Gilded Age-ideologies were drastically weakened on a national scale during the Progessive and New Deal era, and the Sixties and Seventies killed them stone dead--Reagan's appeal to American exceptionalism was a mere echo of a national affirmation that, quite simply, doesn't exist anymore.

    Brooks, if nothing else, reveals himself to be more of a nostalgist than a serious political pundit on this.

  • Realist||

    "Cerebral"....you've got to be kidding!

  • ||

    Good catch.

    Pseudo-intellectual works though.

  • Realist||

    Yes.

  • Tony||

    Here's an idea: maybe when we're attempting to recover from a potential great depression isn't the best time to have a stupid philosophical debate about the size of government.

  • ||

    It was a large government that caused the current recession and is now preventing it from recovering.

  • Tony||

    But then large government is responsible for everything bad, isn't it?

  • sevo||

    Except for the stuff that's "Bush's Fault" (tm), like your dandruff.

  • Liberal Douchebag||

    I had a hangnail Tuesday. Hurt like hell. I wouldn't have had it in the first place if it weren't for the eight years of the Bush regime.

  • ||

    But then large government is responsible for everything bad, isn't it?

    Nope

    But it is responsible for Fanny May and Freddy Mac and the the 6+ trillion worth of loans and guarantees it dumped on the mortgage market.

  • meh||

    Not to mention the massive deficit, massive debt, the inflation over the past decade, and making the markets riskier than they already are...

    That's not "everything bad", but they're working on it.

  • Barack Obama||

    Rest easy, My people. Soon, the repressive yoke of individualism and self-reliance will be lifted by My Will.

  • Hundocumented||

    Excuse me Mr. O Man, sir... I was just wondering...If your Lordship has the chance...I was planning on buying alot of goodies this Christmas... Did you happen to have any more money in your Obama stash?

  • Barack Obama||

    Only if you're a loyal minion, Hundocumented. Have you accepted Me as your personal saviour?

  • Tony||

    Right-wing lies, sigh.

  • Shorter Tony||

    My party is never at fault.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Which?

  • Steve||

    I actually agree with Tony here; now is not the time to have the debate.

    Now that's settled...what do we eliminate first?

  • Attorney||

    David Brooks.

  • Obama||

    Julian Assange.

  • ||

    (1) It's not a philosophical debate. The size of government has profound practical consequences for just about everybody.

    (2) Given that the world doesn't stand still and there will always be distractions, putting off the debate on account of the crisis-du-jour is both deeply stupid and a tacit surrender to the status quo.

  • J||

    It's such a standard, tired response on his part. "My solutions are pragmatic and designed to solve the problem, yours and merely philosophical and tangential and actually hampering getting any real work done." I don't think he even believes what he's saying.

  • Robert||

    I strongly disagree with #2. First, all decisions are made on the margin. 2nd, "size of gov't" in gen'l terms is much too vague, and it makes much more sense to arue about one piece at a time.

  • ||

    That's correct. It's not time to debate, it's time to drastically cut the size and expense of government. That's what got us out of the first great depression.

    -jcr

  • JoshINHB||

    Here's an idea: maybe when we're attempting to recover from a potential great depression isn't the best time to have a stupid philosophical debate about the size of government.

    Absolutely,

    Just STFU and cut the fucker to the bone.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Big government makes Tony want to tap his right foot in a bathroom stall.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Isn't that the PERFECT time to talk about the size of government? If it is true that large and intrusive government is a disaster for economic development (and to be sure, it is), then now is exactly the time to start talking about reducing it... That is, if you want to actually recover from the "potential" great depression instead of doing what Hoover & FDR did to turn it into an "actual" great depression.

  • ||

    The problem with this "size of government" debate is that it really does not have much relevance to the question of individual freedom for ordinary folks.

    The GOP and "big-L" Libertarian concept of "smaller government" just shifts control from the group with the most voting strength to the group with the most economic strength (or "bargaining power" as the economists call it.) Either way, ordinary people are still left at the mercy of much, much larger forces.

    If there is going to be an enduring small-government movement (apart from election-year sloganeering that simply equates small government to incrementally lower federal income taxes), it is going to have to address exactly what the government's role should be in enforcing the superior bargaining power of our economic elite against the great majority of people who go through life with very finite financial resources.

    "Big Government" allows the little guy to vote himself goodies -- like the weekend, workers comp, and public schooling -- which the economic masters would feel no compulsion to provide in a raw contest of bargaining power (viz. the Robber Baron age of the late 19th Century).

    As "small government" advocates, what do Brooks or Ryan have to offer to all of the many little players in order to get them to surrender their "Big Government" strength at the ballot box, when, under a "Small Government" regime, it is so obvious that the few large players would get to keep, and augment, their strength at the economic bargaining table?

  • ||

    How exactly do rich people control poor people without the government?

  • JoshINHB||

    With money.

  • ||

    Money by definition is government.

  • Hundocumented||

    here I thought it was Time!

  • ||

    1. Rich people have money.

    2. Rich people use money to ?????

    3. Rich people control poor people.

  • Metazoan||

    There is no "freedom for ordinary folks" that is different from "freedom for everyone."

  • Robert||

    The problem with this "size of government" debate is that it really does not have much relevance to the question of individual freedom for ordinary folks.


    Exactly, and the issues don't always cut in the same direction, as too many libertarians assume.

    You're freer where there's a gov't monopoly on gambling than where all gambling is illegal, and yet gov't is bigger if it's running casinos, sports book, lotteries, etc. You're freer if there's a gov't agency licensing & regulating exceptions to a gen'l ban on a certain kind of voluntary activity than if all activity of that kind is illegal (pro boxing, for instance), yet gov't is bigger with the regulatory agency. You're freer as a result of the action of a free trade negotiating agency than you would be otherwise.

  • Fabius||

  • EMp||

    That's why I think Theodore Roosevelt was the right man for the right time.... if you are 1)a 15 year old sent to work in an industrial plant,in order to help keep a roof over your head, or 2) and adult who has to work 60, 70, or 80 hours a week then there is not too much of a chance for either to advance themselves by continuing their education or attempting to learn more about their craft. Trust me - the platitudes about "working hard, playing by the rules, keeping your nose to the grindstone, etc." start to get pretty stale and after a while start to insult the intelligence of the employee - if they have any amount of innate wisdom or common sense.

  • ||

    I suppose that intransigence has a place and a time, but what puzzles me in the article is that the right leaning libertarians do cost benefit analysis by considering the costs only. People have a right to purchase benefits through government. It's a question of liberty.

  • ||

    People have a right to purchase benefits through government. It's a question of liberty.

    Last time I checked, government gets the money to pay for those benefits by stealing it. We have a right to other people's money! It's a question of liberty!

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Where does one "purchase benefits"? Is there a national chain of Benefit Stores? I didn't see one at the mall last weekend, so maybe they haven't opened up in this market yet.

    BTW, Sherman, how are the benefits sold? By the pound? Thin-sliced or whole? Hickory-smoked or deep-fried Cajun-style?

  • ||

    by selling their vote to crooked politicians.

  • sevo||

    "People have a right to purchase benefits through government. It's a question of liberty."
    I'd be really pleased if I had the "right to purchase" from the government.
    When someone points a gun at you and tells you 'gimme your dough", It's hard to equate that to a "right to purchase".
    Might you be a brain-dead ignoramus?

  • YourRepresentative||

    right to purchase benefits comes in the paragraph just after the "Good and Plenty" clause.

  • ||

    Brooks doesn't really care about freedom or reason, he cares about "building character." Basically he's the dad in Calvin and Hobbes.

  • Attorney||

    Actually, what he cares about is his six-figure gig writing drivel as the NYT's conservo-monkey.

  • ||

    No, I mean I think Brooks definitely cares about his image as a New York Times SERIOUS CONSERVATIVE, but I truly think he believes his own catchphrases and meaningless arguments.

  • Realist||

    "When it comes to entitlements, well-intentioned compromise has frequently helped pave the road to fiscal ruin." People only compromise from a position of weakness.

  • YourRepresentative||

    +5

  • Robert||

    Wel, what would you rather people in a position of weakness do?

  • Chris Matthews||

    Big government makes a thrill run up my leg!

  • Willy The Wanker||

    Your little, tiny one?

  • ||

    The problem is that Ryan had a chance to vote to actually cut something, and make some positive changes, and he voted against it. I think Ryan is like many Republicans in that he talks a big game and when faced with an actual vote to make changes, he didn't do it. He also voted FOR all the bailouts.

  • ||

    The problem is that Ryan isn't a libertarian. He's just a Republican who talks like a libertarian. But yeah, at game time he'll just follow the Republican herd.

  • ||

    Only this time, they know they HAVE to make progress on spending. And it's not about the "debt ceiling" -- that's going to have to be raised. It's about methodically cutting spending, cutting spending, cutting spending.

  • Jake Badlands||

    Really, that's all any of them care about. Our entire political system is theater. Bush and Obama are worlds apart rhetorically, but there's barely a difference in terms of policy.

    Guys like Brooks talk about the narrative because that's where they live. The narrative keeps them employed, the narrative gives them power, the narrative makes them feel good and lets them sell that good feeling to the masses. Who gives a fuck about reality when we can all tell a really nice story and pat ourselves on the back for our wisdom and sagacity.

    I can only hope that the stupendous success of the Obama narrative contrasted with the spectacular failure of his actual presidency might make the scales fall from some peoples' eyes.

  • Jake Badlands||

    Sorry, I apparently don't understand how to post. I meant that last as a reply to Heller, when he said,

    "No, I mean I think Brooks definitely cares about his image as a New York Times SERIOUS CONSERVATIVE, but I truly think he believes his own catchphrases and meaningless arguments."

  • ||

    As much as many prognosticators and so-called experts are saying President Obama is going to have a tough time getting re-elected, the reality of the situation is that President Obama will get re-elected against almost any potential GOP challenger.

    However, one candidate cannot be over-looked. If we learned anything from 2008, we should've learned that organization and social media skills are paramount to a campaign. No one is actually going to "come out of nowhere". To become the most powerful person in the world, you have to build quite an organization. That's why only one person has a chance to beat President Obama in 2012.

    This will make it all clear:
    http://mittromneycentral.com/2.....greatness/

  • vornline||

    David Brooks and Paul Ryan???interesting

  • NHLJersey||

    two most popular players
    ed belfour Jersey
    carey price Jersey

  • nike shoes UK||

    is good

  • NFL Jerseys||

    perfect

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement