The Moderate Road to Hell

David Brooks pens a paean to moderates — “moderate conservatives, moderate liberals, just plain moderates.”

You wouldn’t know it some days, but there are moderates in this country — moderate conservatives, moderate liberals, just plain moderates. We sympathize with a lot of the things that President Obama is trying to do. We like his investments in education and energy innovation. We support health care reform that expands coverage while reducing costs.

But the Obama budget is more than just the sum of its parts. There is, entailed in it, a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs. There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor — caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once.

So programs are piled on top of each other and we wind up with a gargantuan $3.6 trillion budget. We end up with deficits that, when considered realistically, are $1 trillion a year and stretch as far as the eye can see. We end up with an agenda that is unexceptional in its parts but that, when taken as a whole, represents a social-engineering experiment that is entirely new.

The U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment. Yet the Obama budget is predicated on a class divide. The president issued a read-my-lips pledge that no new burdens will fall on 95 percent of the American people. All the costs will be borne by the rich and all benefits redistributed downward.
Moderates now find themselves betwixt and between. On the left, there is a president who appears to be, as Crook says, “a conviction politician, a bold progressive liberal.” On the right, there are the Rush Limbaugh brigades. The only thing more scary than Obama’s experiment is the thought that it might fail and the political power will swing over to a Republican Party that is currently unfit to wield it.

Those of us in the moderate tradition — the Hamiltonian tradition that believes in limited but energetic government — thus find ourselves facing a void. We moderates are going to have to assert ourselves. We’re going to have to take a centrist tendency that has been politically feckless and intellectually vapid and turn it into an influential force.

The first task will be to block the excesses of unchecked liberalism. In the past weeks, Democrats have legislated provisions to dilute welfare reform, restrict the inflow of skilled immigrants and gut a voucher program designed for poor students. It will be up to moderates to raise the alarms against these ideological outrages.

But beyond that, moderates will have to sketch out an alternative vision. This is a vision of a nation in which we’re all in it together — in which burdens are shared broadly, rather than simply inflicted upon a small minority. This is a vision of a nation that does not try to build prosperity on a foundation of debt. This is a vision that puts competitiveness and growth first, not redistribution first.

David Brooks is just too easy to ridicule.

We’re talking “mushy, meaningless moderation“:

Reading his very frustrating column, it seems clear that Brooks would be far more inclined to support the administration if only the president would tackle crises one at time, instead of addressing multiple challenges at the same time: “There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor — caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once.”

The notion that multiple problems — healthcare, energy, education, infrastructure, economic growth — may be inter-connected seems to elude Brooks entirely.

If it depended on moderates, none of our historic milestones of progress would have happened, because all of them challenged the status quo:

[Brooks’ argument] doesn’t really have anything to offer beyond a defence of the status-quo – an implicit assumption that any effort to redress economic inequality is ipso facto class warfare. John McGowan expresses this nicely in his book on American liberalism.

Mystery, our inability to know enough and thus to act wisely and necessities (either of complexity, of order, or of human nature) that frustrate any human effort to alter them – these are constant conservative watchwords against the dangerous human innovators who would dare to improve things. …Yet improvements do occur – and conservatives are constantly in the embarrassing position of having to admit that innovations they fervently opposed in the past are actually changes for the better now that they have arrived. Jerry Falwell “has apologized for his segregationist views” and presumably Russell Kirk does think the abolition of American slavery a good thing even though he tells us that America’s antebellum conservatives North and South “could not prevail against Abolitionists and Fire-Eaters,” which led to “the catastrophe of the Civil War.”

And this is the problem with the piece. It does contain some sweeping claims about American traditions that are being trampled by this proposed budget – but all these traditions are vaguely described, and have historically accommodated greater deviations from the purported true path than are being proposed here. So if looked at closely, it really amounts to little more than a statement that the status quo should be respected because it is the status quo.

Noted socialist left-wing commentator Ed Kilgore:

David Brooks is not a stupid man. He knows that progressives aren’t simply “using” the economic crisis to “focus on every other problem under the sun.” They believe, as Brooks sometimes appears to believe, that you cannot separate “the economic crisis” from health care costs, an inefficient and unsustainable energy system, an underperforming education system, or indeed, from a tax code that undermines middle-class work and rewards upper-class wealth. If moving towards universal health care is the best way to restrain uncontrolled health care costs (a huge burden for both the public and private sectors) while mitigating the real-life damage wrought by the economic crisis, why would you not want to do that? If a retooled energy system does indeed position the United States to dominate a huge and fast-growing global market in alternative energy technologies, does it make any sense to wait on initiatives to achieve that in the pursuit of “moderation?” And if addressing the fundamental causes and dire consequences of poorly regulated financial institutions requires “more government,” what’s the point in insisting on “less government”–the supposed “Hamiltonian” principle Brooks insists Americans cherish–at the risk of producing the same disastrous results?

The “moderation” Brooks is championing seems to represent little more than an instinctive reaction against any coherent plan of action, and a horror of following through with the logic of progressive–and actually, “moderate”–analysis of why the economy has collapsed and what, specifically, needs to be done to revive the country.

Actually, says Joe Klein the “moderate-liberal,” this budget is moderate:

… The budget has to be seen in context. We are at the end of a 30-year period of radical conservatism, a period so right-wing that many of those now considered “liberals”–like, say, Barack Obama–would be seen as moderate pantywaists in the great sweep of modern political history. The past 30 years have been such a violent departure from the norm, such a profound destruction of the basic functions of government, that a major rectification is called for now–in rebalancing the system of taxation toward progressivity, in rebuilding the infrastructure of the country, not just physically, but also socially and intellectually.

So it’s not surprising that the President would feel the need to move on all fronts, rather than prioritizing, as Brooks would want. And it should be remembered that not all these initiatives will be acted upon at once. This is a ten-year budget. Some of the more dramatic changes, like the cap-and-trade plan to limit carbon emissions, will be insinuated slowly and not for several years.

In almost every case, Obama has chosen a moderate path of government activism–or left the solutions deliberately vague. His ten-year, $150 billion green energy plan, for example, will mostly be accomplished through the private sector–but it does tilt government toward alternative energy sources and away from the extreme benefits lavished upon oil companies in the past, policies that reeked of crony-capitalism rather than true conservatism.

I could argue that Obama isn’t being radical enough in the areas of health care and education. His health care plan is vague, and he hasn’t quite embraced universality. He rejects left-liberal solutions like a single-payer system out of hand, but also rejects the radical moderation of the Wyden-Bennett plan that would immediately relieve corporate America of its health care burdens. I fear that the ultimate result, without strong guidance from the Administration, will be an homage to health industry lobbyists and assorted Congressional health eccentrics. His education plan is also small-c conservative, working within the current, failed-to-mediocre system of local-controlled public education and rejecting some of the more creative calls for root-and-branch reform (like taking education out of local hands, for example).

Mark Steyn thinks David Brooks is the typical American. He isn’t. Neither is Steyn — for which, thank God.

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