January 3, 2012

January 3, 2012 | Commentary on Political Thought

Government Must Be Both Limited and Competent

MY hope for America in 2012 is that the year won’t be all about 2012.

It’s an election year, and in America these return, as Hugo Drax put it in Moonraker, with “the tedious inevitability of an unloved season”. What is so unlovely about the electoral cycle is that, all too often, American politics are about demonstrating the willingness to utter the correct pieties, about hanging the right sign in the window.

In his 1978 essay on The Power of the Powerless, the late Vaclav Havel wrote eloquently about the importance of that sign. Under Communism, a greengrocer puts a “Workers of the world, unite!” sign in his window. He doesn’t care what the sign says, he cares what it means. And what it means is that he’s willing to say the conventional thing, to be obedient. He knows he’s sacrificing tomorrow, but he’s gaining security today.

Havel wanted elections, and it was the glory of his life that he got them, and won them. But in a democracy, an elected government exists to govern. And that is where we are failing. We are excellent at holding elections. What we do not do is govern.

Our system is not like the Communist regimes that Havel detested. But we want what the greengrocer wanted. We want a quiet life. The cost of that today is the sacrifice of tomorrow.

Before the New Deal, the government was so small that – apart from the Federal Reserve – it lacked the power to create big problems that could imperil tomorrow. There was no highway system to under-fund. There was no Medicare programme to pile up trillion dollar liabilities. Even our defences could be improvised in a matter of a year, as our response to Pearl Harbor proved. We relied primarily on the American people, and while the people only sometimes got it right, they did not get it collectively wrong. We could muddle through to victory.

Today, we have passed beyond muddling, and yet we do ever more of it. By taking up the power to act, we have made it vital to be right, even though our power to act is far stronger than our power to act rightly.

In a decade, we will have the armed forces we are buying today, when defence spending is going nowhere but down. All of our social welfare programmes will be even more hopelessly in the red. Our highways will be even more broken. The prices of bigger government are many, but one is seriousness of purpose. It is a price we are not paying.

What this all comes down to is that we are betraying the next generation. The Boomers, those paragons of generational selfishness, are getting what they want. Like the greengrocer, they know that the cost of the sign in the window is that tomorrow, things will be a little bit worse. But like the greengrocer, they care less about tomorrow than they care about today. It seems that no candidate can win the US if they challenge the entitled generation.

Unfortunately, no politician in America can govern without challenging them, because our problems rest fundamentally in using government to privilege today over tomorrow.

President Obama has set out his electoral stall with the claim that what America wants is more fairness, as if the purpose of government is to keep on rolling the football pitch until it is completely flat.

His claim is nothing more than a greengrocer’s sign, because the rolling will never end. If the financial crisis of the entitlement state did not exist, liberals would be tempted to invent it to keep their core constituency motivated.

But conservatives need to remember that the converse of more government is not no government. It is government that is both limited and competent. It is government that recognises both the importance and the restrictions of expertise, and that acknowledges that, because government is going to stay larger than it was in 1929, it must be responsible.

It is what Ronald Reagan called for in his first inaugural address, when he said that it was “not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work – work with us, not over us”.

If the piety of liberals is the illusion of governmental omnicompetence, the piety of conservatives is to emphasise the limits on government while passing over the virtues of governmental competence that flow from those limits.

A government with limits must be a positive creed. We are badly in need of optimism in America, and badly in need of government which recognises that the way to instill it is not to go on making promises that it cannot keep.

In 2012, my hope is that Americans will recognise that the first necessity of government today is not to do more. It is to do less, not just as an end in itself, but so we can do it well for generations to come.

Ted R Bromund is a senior research fellow at The Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom in Washington.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Yorkshire Post