Fear of Letting Go


In Defense of Government: The Fall and Rise of Public Trust, by Jacob Weisberg, New York: Scribner, 208 pages, $22.00

"Our government has serious flaws. It is overdrawn and overextended. It lacks accountability and flexibility. Its purposes have become muddied and often lost. The antigovernment movement we are now living through has been abetted by real failures." Did this appear in an editorial from The Weekly Standard? Or a speech by Newt Gingrich? No, it's in the preface to Jacob Weisberg's In Defense of Government.

The New York contributing editor and former New Republic senior editor has written a lucid and insightful analysis of the American political scene. Unlike other self-described Progressive authors of recent books such as E.J. Dionne Jr. (They Only Look Dead) and James Carville (We're Right, They're Wrong), Weisberg appreciates diverse political traditions and truly understands why many Americans distrust elected officials and government institutions. He also makes a compelling case that the combatants inside both political parties are incapable of relieving our widely felt political funk. Yet while Weisberg tantalizes the reader, promising new insights that could make political institutions leaner, more effective, and worthy of broad public support, he proves better at describing problems than prescribing remedies.

REASON readers will be quite familiar with the litany of problems Weisberg cites–sclerotic bureaucracies that stifle individual initiative, programs that transfer wealth from the needy to the well-heeled, elected officials who promise more than any reasonable person expects they could deliver. And he rarely sugarcoats his descriptions of corrupt or unwise government programs, regardless of their noble goals. "The fall of public trust" Weisberg mentions in the book's subtitle is best demonstrated with polling data he cites. For a half century pollsters have asked people how often they trust the federal government to do the right thing. In 1964, 76 percent said "most of the time" or "always." Three decades later that number had fallen to 14 percent. Last year the number rebounded to 18 percent, but that's still a far cry from the widespread optimism people had about the federal government 20 years ago.

Weisberg is concerned about the public's disdain for governmental institutions–indeed, it's the reason he wrote the book. His goal is to explain how activist government lost its luster and how it can be rejuvenated. "Government is us, collectively," he writes. "If government in this country acts the part of the oppressor or the tyrant, it is we who are oppressing ourselves. Government's flaws are our flaws, writ large, its failures our failures. But the successes of government are ours too."

Unlike Dionne, Carville, and other left-liberal commentators, Weisberg does not assume that his readers should automatically agree with him. What sets In Defense of Government apart is Weisberg's willingness to offer a clear-headed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of his ideological friends and foes.

Because Weisberg's book focuses on the Republicans, and his response to them, he doesn't have much to say to his Democrat allies, at least those who have been politically active over the past couple of decades. He's not even as charitable as Dionne, who at least gives contemporary liberals credit for being well-intentioned. Instead, Weisberg criticizes New Democrats and their obsession with "reinventing government" for "leapfrog[ging] issues of what government should do in favor of figuring out how government can do everything it does now more efficiently." He also blames New Deal-defending "paleoliberals" for possessing "degrees of unenlightenment, ranging from those who deny that Democrats have a problem, political or substantive, to those who admit one but propose inadequate remedies."

Weisberg spends more time analyzing Republicans than eulogizing Democrats. And he initially offers some cogent explanations of the GOP coalition's strengths and the factors that could cause it to eventually crack up. He notes, for instance, that Republican critics of the welfare state (Newt Gingrich especially) have focused their rhetorical venom on the Great Society programs initiated in the 1960s, offering little criticism of the New Deal. Attacking the New Deal would require assaults on FDR, whose organizational abilities Gingrich praises and whose leadership skills Gingrich may in fact envy. Yet the Great Society was merely a more organized extension of New Deal programs begun by Roosevelt.

Republicans also tend to overlook the fact that Richard Nixon extended the reach of the Great Society. Nixon, Weisberg notes, "advanced far more expansive social policies than any Democrat would dare suggest today, including the most liberal welfare scheme ever proposed by a president, the guaranteed income. Nixon also argued for a system of national health insurance, based upon an employer mandate, and can claim credit for initiating affirmative action….The ultimate gambit of Nixon the domestic liberal was his scheme to tame inflation through wage and price controls."

Weisberg acknowledges that, unlike Nixon (or Ronald Reagan, who was either unwilling or unable to propose serious reductions in federal authority), prominent members of the Republican majority in the 104th Congress intend to cut back government. But the zeal for downsizing isn't shared by all Republicans. Weisberg makes a useful, mostly accurate division between three GOP factions: closet libertarians, pseudolibertarians, and authoritarians.

Weisberg says the closet libertarians (who include House Majority Leader Dick Armey, House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, and California Rep. Chris Cox) "really mean to shrink the government despite the political costs of doing so." He admires their ideological clarity but not much else. "They are inspired by books, but to call them intellectuals suggests a degree of openmindedness they do not possess….Libertarians often come across with a directness that their rivals lack. Ask most politicians, from Gingrich to Clinton, what the role of the federal government is and you'll get a stream of mush. Poke a libertarian and you'll get a clear response."

These politicians must keep their ideological lanterns under a bushel, says Weisberg, because "most Republican libertarians were not inspired by [classical liberals Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, and F.A. Hayek] but by the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged" –an assertion he never substantiates and one that, even if true, say, a decade ago, seems less credible now. "Ayn Rand's philosophy of 'objectivism,' hyperindividualism tinged with Nietzschean power worship, attracts a number of bookish adolescents after they tire of Hermann Hesse. To call yourself a libertarian thus implies that you were a bright teenager but that you suffer from a stunted intellectual development." This comment says more about the genus of libertarian who may have made Weisberg's acquaintance (or perhaps about the teenaged Weisberg's own reading habits?) than it does about the soundness of classical-liberal principles. It's also not clear why a person's views, inspiration, or lack of philosophical nuance as an adolescent suggests anything at all about the validity of the same person's political philosophy and positions as an adult.

Even though these pathetic geeks have to keep their policy prescriptions to themselves, says Weisberg, there's enough substance to the limited-government agenda that ambitious but cynical politicians (like Reagan, in Weisberg's view) can spout libertarian rhetoric while never intending to carry it through. Enter the pseudolibertarians, who "emit a constant chirp about shrinking government; making it cheaper, less powerful; chopping it up and sending it to the states….Instead of not being able to say what they clandestinely want to do," the pseudos "are uninterested in doing what they say."

The pseudolibertarians, in Weisberg's lexicon, include two subcategories: radicals (Gingrich, Trent Lott, Dan Quayle) and moderates (Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander, Christie Whitman). The radicals, who sound like libertarians, are raging hypocrites who "take more readily to such moralistic ideas as conditioning welfare on marital status or to putting churches in charge of it than to sweeping libertarian proposals like eliminating welfare altogether." They make ferocious assaults on the intrusiveness of the federal government and then vote to ban smut on the Internet or create a sweeping new category of federal crimes as a means of countering "terrorism."

The moderates, by contrast, are the heirs of the Rockefeller Republicans, says Weisberg, a group that "consists largely of people who had little problem with big government until the day before yesterday." Moderate pseudolibertarians flee "such designations [as liberal or moderate] in an age when the only good Republican is a conservative Republican." They stomach (and occasionally parrot) antigovernment rhetoric because, if they didn't, party leaders might kick them out.

Then there are the authoritarians, "true conservatives who have no natural inclination to bother about the size of government." For Pat Buchanan, Ralph Reed, and Bill Bennett, "Washington is irredeemably liberal, and preempts the assertion of moral authority at a lower level." Authoritarians can actually bond with libertarians in such areas as restoring welfare, education, and crime control as state and local responsibilities. But the groups have different reasons for disempowering Washington. "For most Republicans, devolution means less government. To authoritarians, however, it really does mean handing power to the states."

Even though Weisberg cleverly skewers the political class, his purpose, as the title says, is to defend government. And that's where Weisberg runs into trouble. He confesses the failure of government programs to solve social ills, from welfare policy to the drug war. It may be impossible to craft neat and tidy solutions for these problems, he admits. But it's the obligation of a liberal society to try. "The libertarian throws up his hands at the interplay of social evils and imperfect solutions, and says it's no concern of the state's," he writes. "But the liberal answers that government not only has the potential to better society, it has a moral obligation to do so."

As E.J. Dionne did in They Only Look Dead, Weisberg looks to the early-20th-century Progressives for inspiration. (See "Middle Management," May.) Yet unlike Dionne, who seems to celebrate the statist inclinations of Progressive central planners, Weisberg considers them reluctant power mongers. "Progressives did not advocate unbridled growth in government," he says. Instead, Progressives had to embrace central power because their times demanded "a government that could cage the new beast [of concentrated corporate power] and protect citizens from its ravages." And even though governmental institutions have failed, the "confident nationalism and assertive moralism that characterized the [Progressive] movement at its apogee [contains] attitudes we need to recapture.

"Liberals lost the support of the nation not because of their ideals," argues Weisberg, "but as a result of the flawed way they put them into practice." To regain the public's trust, he says, today's Progressives have to advocate a pragmatic, limited government, guided by what he refers to as "five habits of highly effective liberals": Accept risk, and steer away from policy prescriptions that treat adults as children, or as helpless victims of their environment. Stop overpromising and offer programs that try to alleviate social ills rather than "solving" them. Sunset federal programs frequently, because a "set expiration date fosters a mission mentality [on an agency] rather than a bureaucratic one." Stop pushing massive new laws that leave most of the regulatory decision-making in the hands of executive branch bureaucrats. And place a limit–as a percentage of national income–on the ability of federal, state, and local governments to tax and spend.

If you're wondering why Weisberg, who's no fan of libertarians, would advocate an agenda more radical than Dick Armey's, remember the author's goal: legitimating government activism. In his view, Progressives must relimit government to its most basic functions of defending the lives and property of all Americans. After accomplishing that, activists can once again ratchet state power upward a little bit at a time.

You don't have to be a Hayekian to recognize a problem with this approach. If a half-dozen cabinet agencies and their functions disappeared, if Social Security went private, if the responsibility for welfare programs shifted from government bureaucracies to charitable institutions, it's not clear that the typical voter would want a new spate of federal bureaus to spring up in their place. If your intention is burning the village to save it, sensible people might ask two questions: 1) Why not leave the village alone? 2) If we must burn down the village, why build a new, identical one on the same site?

In Defense of Government is astonishingly analogous to Dead Right, David Frum's important 1994 book on American conservatism. Frum took conservatives to task for embracing statism, arguing that during the 1980s conservative Republicans made a conscious decision to ignore the rapidly expanding federal government. The GOP recognized that average people like getting goodies from Uncle Sam, so any elected official who promised to end the gravy train would be unceremoniously removed from office come election day. But, argued Frum, the welfare state and the entitlement mentality were destroying such bourgeois virtues as thrift, prudence, and risk taking; unless conservatives were willing to renounce statism, the fabric of American society could be ripped beyond repair. To restore civil society, Frum believed, conservatives might have to embrace a form of limited-government libertarianism, because only by smashing the New Deal-Great Society bureaucracies could a new, conservative order emerge.

Weisberg offers a mirror image of Frum's thesis, asserting that effective but limited government will cause people to eventually yearn for new spending, higher taxes, and more intrusive regulations. Frum argued that libertarian means could achieve conservative ends; Weisberg says that embracing libertarian methods will result in support for new Progressive programs.

What's going on? Weisberg almost lets the cat out of the bag: "While they can talk in general terms about less intrusion and about scaling back specific programs, libertarians cannot present their full vision of the good society. They are to be pitied, perhaps, for never being able to explain what they believe." We libertarians in fact are often only too happy to share our beliefs, which quite simply, favor increasing human happiness by expanding individual liberty. We're also honest enough to recognize that a free society is more like a kaleidoscope than a photograph; it constantly changes in unpredictable ways. Weisberg demands that libertarians explain their world to such an extent that we could predict the per capita income of Newark 10 years after the arrival of "the good society." For us, even making such a request is silly.

Weisberg and Frum belong to the intellectual and policy environment that dominates the Boston-to-Washington corridor, an atmosphere that seems incapable of tolerating, much less comprehending, the messy, dynamic world in which we live. This intellectual universe routinely excludes those aspects of social activity that are not tied to the political process, such as entrepreneurship, commerce, music, literature, relationships, sports, spirituality–in other words, the most important parts of most of our lives. It's little wonder many people who are outside that universe think that those within speak a foreign language.

Until the best and brightest of the political class (and Weisberg is an excellent writer and thinker) break out of their conceptual box, they will continue to talk past the rest of us. What a shame.

Rick Henderson (DCReason@aol.com) is Washington editor of REASON