We Do Big Things

Obama, liberaltarianism, and rethinking government

As a speech—as a campaign speech, to be specific—President Obama’s State of the Union seemed to work splendidly. He hit the right notes—uplifting, optimistic, folksy (although his sense of humor is not particularly well suited to Reaganisms)—and did what he probably wanted to do, which is to set himself apart as the pragmatic adult in a room of childish ideologues. And really, who doesn’t want to “win the future”? As a policy speech, well … does anyone, anywhere, think the Republican House is going to sign on to multibillion dollar investments in inter-city high-speed rail and clean energy that would require eliminating tax breaks for millionaires and oil companies?

Didn’t think so.

Oh sure, they may eventually sign on to some sort of education reform; Republicans have said some kind words about Race to the Top, after all. And they may go along with a consolidation of the Cabinet, or revamping the tax code (provided the Koch brothers end up paying less at the end of the day). But everything else—our Sputnik moment, immigration reform, and so on—is basically DOA. And Obama, of course, knows that. Which is why the SOTU was foremost a campaign speech, an effort to frame the narrative.

And that’s a goddamn shame. Not just because the presidential campaign is now basically underway, though that sucks, nor because Obama watered down what should have been a come-to-Jesus leveling with the American public—i.e., the government is not taking in enough revenue to meet its commitments; thus, we need to either raise revenue or dramatically scale back what we do in ways you probably won’t like—in favor of more focus-group-tested applause lines, which is also a shame. Not even because many of the things Obama proposes to do with education, energy, and infrastructure are undeniably and unequivocally necessary, but won’t get done because we’re worshipping at the golden calf of austerity—hell, Obama himself called for a five-year spending freeze, and if there’s a way to make that math add up, my arithmetic-adverse brain hasn’t yet stumbled on it.

It’s a shame because we’re skirting the more fundamental conversation about what government should be doing, and how it should be doing it, and instead trifling around the edges of cuts. The president is right: Government should do “big things,” if only because no one else will (see, the Internet; also, the moon landing). It should strive for fairness of opportunity and reward innovation. It should invest heavily in education and technology—because someone’s going to build the future, and it might as well be us. Government should be proactive and, yes, progressive. Yes, it should also serve as a check on the free market and, to some degree, redistribute wealth, lest the gilded age returns with a vengeance and we become even more of an aristocracy.

In an age where the very idea of government is under attack, where the once-radical Norquist line about drowning the government in a bathtub has become an article of faith among mainstream conservatives, where even Ronald Reagan would be disowned by the party that claims to revere him (he raised taxes, after all), we need a strong defense of what government can do, and a clear direction for how we should do it.

And that brings me to this: An essay in the current issue of Democracy Journal from Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer that posits, in broad strokes, a strain of neoliberalism that eschews Big Government for Big Government’s sake, but instead sees government as a sort of incubator and sheriff to the innovation economy.

The current dissatisfaction with government is not a mere perception or marketing problem, as too many on the left still believe. It is a product problem. Government has for too many people become unresponsive, dehumanizing, and inefficient. Only when we improve government itself will our satisfaction with it improve. Unfortunately, the American discourse on government has long been frozen in two dimensions: more vs. less, big vs. small. We argue for an orthogonal approach: more government when it comes to setting great goals and investing to achieve them; less government when it comes to how we collectively meet those goals. We believe this has to be a progressive project. Because progressives remain the only group in America willing to advocate for government, we have a special responsibility to imagine its role anew. [Emphasis mine]

I could (and do) quibble around the essay’s edges—the flat assertion, for instance, that privatizing the Postal Service would lead to considerably better and cheaper service. (The Postal Service, I should note, is inefficient by design; efficiency would mean your mail got delivered maybe once a week, or everyone had to have a P.O. Box instead of home delivery, or every letter cost $2, or … you get the idea.)

But this is the type of defense of government I wanted to hear the president espouse last night:

[P]rogressives need to update how they see the world. Market fundamentalists would have us believe that our success comes in spite of government. There is literally no evidence for this. If less were always better, then the least regulated economies would be the most successful economies. The opposite holds. It is, in fact, the rules, regulations, standards, and accountability that government provides that fuel and lubricate markets. A robust state is not mutually exclusive with a free market; it is required for it. This is why there is no robust private sector on earth that isn’t accompanied by an equally robust public sector.

Societies can be successful only with the civic cooperation, strategic organization, and economic moderation that activist government provides. And the larger and more complex a society becomes, the more government must do to provide the basis for continued success. True prosperity is always a consequence of generalized prosperity, and only progressive activist government can achieve that. The law of the jungle—market fundamentalism—brings just one possible outcome: a jungle.

Government is what turns the jungle into a garden. To govern poorly is to “let nature take its course,” which results in wild growth by a few noxious weeds and the eventual collapse of the garden. To govern well is to tend the garden: to weed, to seed, and to feed. We believe firmly that a market is the best tool ever invented to generate solutions to human problems. But since there is no such thing as a market without a government, the only question is how well, to what ends, and with what skill the government shapes and adjusts the life of the market—how well it tends—so that it yields solutions for the common good.

That some liberals have largely embraced what might be termed “liberaltarianism” (though, as Wilkinson notes, there is assuredly an imperfect convergence)—and co-opted some libertarian ideas—is rather amusing, given the perpetual paranoid caterwauling from the right about impending SOCIALISM. (For instance, we’re now fighting over whether the top marginal tax rate should be 36 percent or 39 percent; it was around 90 percent under Ike. And yet … SOCIALISM. It’s really quite insane to watch if you know the first thing about American political history, but I digress.) More importantly, progressives (or at least, progressive intellectuals) much more so than conservatives (who have by and large made nihilism their cause du jour) are looking at government not  in the sense of big vs. small, or left vs. right, or intrusive vs. laissez-faire, but of what works vs. what doesn’t.

Our bumper sticker is that government should do more what, less how: a stronger hand in setting great national goals and purposes; a lighter touch in how we reach those goals. Government should be less a service provider and more a tool creator; less wielder of stick than of carrot; less the parent than the coach; less the vending machine than the toolkit for civic action. A more what/less how government should set the bar high and invest fully in a great springboard—then let people, through dedication and practice, compete to get over the bar.

Liu and Hanauer argue that the government should act as a “prime contractor,” and use the tax code to “nudge” people toward—although not necessarily mandate—positive societal goals (minimizing climate change, for instance, by virtue of both a carbon tax and financial and regulatory rewards for businesses that cut their pollution emissions); it should be spend more on prevention, less on cures; it should both allow states to experiment with different (but well-funded) approaches to, say, education, while being obsessively introspective and junking immediately the things that don’t work. As they say:

The point, as in our entire philosophy, is not to end government, but to end the way we do government. Government should be living, organic, evolving—not inert, inanimate, and unchanging.

I saw hints of that philosophy in Obama’s SOTU, as I have throughout his presidency—and often, I think, it’s misinterpreted as “triangulation” or centrism. But while saying the government needs to invest more in these targeted areas is great, what’s missing is the sense that government can do this well—the proposition that government can be, in fact, a force for good rather than just a necessary evil—and the path to how we do it. What’s missing is a defense of the government as a means to the collective good, as a source of innovation and the curator of a dynamic, well-educated society.

Until we acknowledge that, until it permeates the core of our culture, debates over whether to fund this education program or that science research are rendered largely ephemeral, especially when half of Congress sees the government itself as a blight upon freedom.