Government is not the problem

From Leon Wieseltier's "Washington Diarist" column in this week's New Republic:

The response of the right to the crisis in America was to flee to its catechism. The Republicans propose to bail out the economy with doctrine. Unemployment is 7.6 percent and rising, and they say: let them eat Friedman. When billions and billions of dollars are needed for the Pentagon (fine with me) and for Wall Street, it is damn the zeroes, full speed ahead--but when the prospect of relief for ordinary Americans in trouble rears its fair and compassionate head, the deficit desperately matters again. The Republicans are not only heartless, they are also hypocritical, since the cause of all this misery was the market abandon that they promoted so messianically. These are the people who would have privatized, that is, destroyed, Social Security: how can their protests not be met vehemently? This vehemence is not "partisanship," it is analysis. It is not "populism," it is liberalism.

But I want the president to say so. I want the president to tell the American people that, contrary to what they have been taught for many years, government is a jewel of human association and an heirloom of human reason; that government, though it may do ill, does good; that a lot of the good that government does only it can do; that the size of government must be fitted to the size of its tasks, and so, for a polity such as ours, big government is the only government; that strong government comports well with strong freedom, unless Madison was wrong; that a government based on rights cannot exclude from its concern the adversities of the people who confer upon it its legitimacy, or consign their remediation to the charitable moods of a preferred and decadent few; that Ronald Reagan, when he proclaimed categorically, without exception or complication, that "government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem," was a fool; and that nobody was ever rescued, or enlarged, by being left alone.

Read the rest here.

Suspicion of government "interference" of any kind, and contempt for politics (and politicians) was the lesson the Right asked us to learn from the failures of twentieth-centurytotalitarianism. It was the wrong lesson. In order to avoid the worst excesses of state power, American conservatives, libertarians, and neoliberals told us we should take our chances withtoo little government. This falsedichotomyeventually becamethe template for nearly all political controversy betweenthose we Americans call liberals andthose we call conservatives: statism, which always tended toward totalitarianism (cf. the "liberal fascism" thesis of Jonah Goldberg), or antistatism, whichalone could secure our individual liberties so that we could all spend ourlivesin pursuit of nonpolitical satisfactions.A (for America) or C (for Communism). Don't even ask about B.

Never mind that this conceptual framework never really corresponded to the way a complexmodernsociety actually functions. Never mind thatmost critics of the state were alsoproponents of an agressive foreign policy. It wasn't a question ofhistorical complexity or theoretical consistency or even principle (though antistatists loved to make showy appeals to "first principles"). It was mostly a question of language: free-market conservatives developed a special vocabulary that generated alot of rhetoric and invective -- some of itveryimpressive -- butnot much useful analysis. Justice meant retribution, in a prison or on the battlefield. It had nothing to do with distribution.A Catholic word like "subsidiarity" was OK if it meant more control for localgovernment and less control for the federal government, but not if itimplied a critique of economic globalization. Centralizedcorporate powerwas OK;centralized democratic government was not.If you were interested in real analysis,theypointed youin the direction of Chicago School economists, their academic brain trust,whose ideas were indeed sophisticated and consistent but also, as it turns out, wrong.

An adequate political philosophy needs more than the only two rules the libertarian right could offer: noli me tangere and non serviam.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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