Government by Abstractions

Is the GOP interested in solving real problems?

Edmund Burke, one of history's greatest conservatives, warned that abstractions are the enemy of responsible government.

"I never govern myself, no rational man ever did govern himself, by abstractions and universals," Burke wrote. "A statesman differs from a professor in a university; the latter has only the general view of society; the former, the statesman, has a number of circumstances to combine with those general ideas."

Alas for all of us and for American conservatism in particular, the new Republican majority that took control of the House on Wednesday is embarked on an experiment in government by abstractions. Many in its ranks pride themselves on being practical business people, but they behave as professors in thrall to a few thrilling ideas.

Their rhetoric is nearly devoid of talk about solving practical problems—how to improve our health care, education and transportation systems, or how to create more middle-class jobs. Instead, we hear about things we can't touch or see or feel, and about highly general principles divorced from their impact on everyday life.

Their passion is not for what government should or shouldn't do but for "smaller government" as a moral imperative. During the campaign, they put out a nice round $100 billion in spending cuts, from which they're now backing away. It is far easier to float a big number than to describe reductions for student loans, bridges, national parks or medical research.

Republicans promised they would "repeal and replace" President Barack Obama's health-care law but the only thing on the schedule is repeal [PDF]. They provide no alternative.

A leadership that promised a more open process highhandedly slammed the door on any amendments to its repeal bill. Most Americans rather like the new law's ban on insurance discrimination against those with preexisting conditions and the provision allowing parents to keep children on their health insurance plans until age twenty-six. But there will be no votes on those parts of the law because attention to those inconvenient "circumstances" Burke discusses would divert attention from the great, abstract scarecrow of "Obamacare."

There is nothing wrong with reading our Constitution as part of the new Congress' debut. It's a good Constitution. But note that conservatives would much prefer to pronounce various liberal initiatives "unconstitutional"—again, in the abstract—than to say whether they are for or against minimum-wage and environmental laws, Medicaid and a slew of other initiatives that never crossed the minds of those who wrote our foundational document. The Founders couldn't conceive of Facebook, either.

And that other perennial abstraction, "excessive regulation," is easier to assail than specific rules that make our air and water cleaner or financial transactions more transparent.

Intelligent legislators know that human beings sometimes cut corners. They recall what James Madison, another conservative hero, said in Federalist 51: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." As Madison knew, men aren't angels, but the professors in Congress seem to believe that another great abstraction, "the free market," can obviate the need for messy and complicated statutes.

We hear much debate over how Obama and the Democrats should deal with the Republican House and beefed-up Republican ranks in the Senate. The primary task should be a relentless campaign to move the public discussion from the abstract to the concrete: from doctrine to problem-solving; from "smaller government" to the specifics of what government does; from "budget cuts" to the impact of reductions on actual programs.

And paradoxically, because Obama is a former professor himself, he may be especially well-suited to call the bluff of the new professoriate in Congress. He knows better than most the dangers posed by an excessive devotion to abstractions.

But the media also have a responsibility. If journalism in a democracy is about anything, it is about bringing the expansive rhetoric of politicians down to earth and holding them accountable for how their ideas translate into policies that affect actual human beings.

It may be easier to report windy speeches about "liberty" and "entrepreneurship" than to do the grubby work of examining budgets, regulations, programs, and economic consequences. But journalists surely want to be more than stenographers.

Michael Oakeshott, another great conservative philosopher, declared: "It is the mark of all intelligent discourse that it is about something in particular." Let's encourage the new professors who would govern us to deal with particulars and not just their ideological dreams. 

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Related: This New House, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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The Repubs have used Madison Ave slogans to win back the House. They used 'death panels' 'Obamacare' 'death taxes' etc . How about Dems countering with slogans too. I offer one.  'Killing the 401Ks'  the market will drop 50% the day after the debt limit defaults on US debt; that's now said to be March 31 2011. and maybe 25% on the day before when Repubs get a heads up that the votes are there. Talk about a March On Washington.. As Jimmy Durante said 'you ain't seen nothing yet'


Yesterday's Rules Committee hearing bore out Dionne's analysis very well. The specific outcomes of repeal were brought forward in agonizing detail by the Democrats, while many of the Republican objections were theoretical concerns about "Obamacare." CSpan 2 idid a great public service in carrying the discussions.

Seems to me that these comments demonstrate precisely why "abstractions" are, in fact, critical.  Essentially, Mr. Dionne proposes that government MUST be doing any number of things.  THAT is an abstraction as well.

I'm rather pleased that the Republicans have regained some power.  I'm sure the Democrats will scream that the Congress hasn't accomplished much.  That is, in fact, precisely what I have in mind!  I don't Congress charging headlong into anything, the way they've been doing for 50 years.

I WANT them to squabble, bicker, argue, generally fail to accomplish much for a long time, THEN work out a consensus that'll allow the country to move on from all the baloney we've been stuck with for so long.


That's the practical answer I want:  Working out a plan that both sides commit to that ultimately enables government to butt out as much as absolutely possible.

I vote Republican much more than Democrat in no small part because the Democrats, for my purpsoes, demonstrate unconscionable contempt for the ability of the average person to do something for himself.

E. J. Dionne wrote of the Republicans: “Their rhetoric is nearly devoid of talk about solving practical problems . . .” 

I agree with, but the president who ran for office on my party’s ticket has contented himself with nothing of much more importance than rhetoric that floats away on his breath and leaves in place a status quo stuffed with problems.

But the status quo and has been very good to Obama; by going along he has gotten along and ascended to positions at the top of some things where he did nothing more than be at the top and not rock the boat.  He seems to want to be seen as very important by those he apparently believes are very important, i.e., the powerfully rich.

As for the masses of struggling Americans, Obama continues to get out in front of the loudest band and struts his stuff as the nation wanders along.   This passing parade, depicting a further gulf between the haves and the have-nots, is playing well to those watching from the choice seats---it thrillingly harkens back to good old days of landed privileged living loyally under George III.

Obama has never forgotten where he came from; heroically he kept himself from ever noticing in the first place.   He grew up never having to worry much about anything and has little worry for those that have a lot to worry about. 

His up-from-poverty story is one of having personally suffered a dearth of empathy.  And though his mother appears to have been blessed with a fortune of it, it got left out of poor Obama’s will.

People are rooting for gridlock, plain and simple. The Republican leadership seems to have no interest in resolving our urgent problems - a troubling sign of what might happen if they regain the White House. My own Republican congressman is fully drinking the party kool-aid on health care repeal an is now in charge of the Ways and Means subcommittee on health care. I can guarantee his mind set and loyalty to the RNC will prevent any solutions on improving health care, investment in jobs, working to relieve poverty, or even to help pass a budget. Meanwhile, program funds for all kinds of anti-poverty programs, especially for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program are being delayed and possibly curtailed while people starve and shiver in freezing wet conditions. Will they only be satisfied when unhealthy people simply die or unemployed migrate to Canada? None apparently ever read or understood Matthew 25. Finally, where are the voices of our bishops on these issues? Their silence is deafening!!

Dionne is an excellent example of a Catholic who reads the signs of the times and then expresses our political and cultural concerns and opportunities in a language and spirit that reflects and clarifies how our Catholic faith can elevate and where necessary, correct, our politics and culture.

   Every Catholic should learn from him and work to read into our present political and cultural activities, to see how they help or obstruct our need to build a 21st century society that respects the dignity of every person and moves toward a spiritually adult expression of the common good.  Our Catholic commitment should be toward moving both parties closer to a truly just and human society. 

If our bishops spoke more like Dionne, our faith would immediaely attract more positive attention and experience a vibrant uplift.

The R's talk a good game about abstractions, but the rubber will hit the road when they attempt to repeal Obamacare.  The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has determined that its repeal will add $230 billion (yes, that's billion) onto the deficit by 2020, and the R response has been to rule out consideration of deficit impact when considering this repeal.  After all that talk about deficit reduction and trimming $100 Billion, instead they charge at the opposite direction.  Surprising?  Noooooooo!

The Rs can dress up their program in any sheep's clothing they wish, but inside its the same-o same-o, pandering to the special interests that fund them, and that costs a lot of our money, or, more accurately, borrowed Chinese money.  I think we are in for a very bad two years.

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