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.