The ideological battle over the role of government promises to figure large in the current election campaign. So much so that it commands nearly daily attention in the mass media. Hardly a news cycle goes by without some reference to it.
Earlier this week David Brooks, a regular contributor to the oped pages of the New York Times and frequent guest on television news shows, jumped into the battle with both feet. Brooks positions himself as an above-the-fray “moderate,” but the reality is otherwise.
In an article in the Times, titled “The Role of Uncle Sam,” Brooks writes that his vision of government and its role can be traced to Alexander Hamilton, one of the nation’s founding fathers and its first secretary of the Treasury. According to Brooks, Hamilton believed that the federal government should be an active force that focuses on “long term structural development, not on providing jobs right now,” and “on dynamism and opportunity more than security, equality, and comfort.”
Thus, a Hamiltonian government, Brooks tells us, would be “energetic without ever becoming gigantic.”
But this vision of an active but narrowly circumscribed role for the federal government, Brooks says, has been largely abandoned over the past century. The abandonment came during three eras of progressive reform – the Progressive era (in the first decade and a half of the last century), the New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
In each of these eras, Brooks claims, “a good impulse was taken to excess” as the federal government assumed functions and established rights (unemployment relief, jobs, Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, Medicaid, welfare, education, environmental protection, civil rights, etc.) that went beyond Hamilton’s vision.
Now it may be true that the evolution of the federal government’s role in the 20th century eclipsed what Hamilton had in mind in the late 18th century, but it is also true that it was a necessary evolution given the crises, contradictions, and unfulfilled promises of developing capitalism.
The particular configuration and functions of the government and state are not set in stone. They change under the impact of capitalist development and class struggles. Hamilton were he alive would probably understand this better than Brooks, who blanches at the very thought of a broadly activist government animated by people’s needs.
In fact, if Brooks could have his way, he would like to freeze the role of the federal government to a time when it created favorable conditions for capitalist expansion and accumulation, while at the same time largely ignoring questions of economic security and equality for working and oppressed people.
Is this an unfair characterization? I don’t think so.
Think about it – even now when the country is reeling and tens of millions are suffering from the impact of the longest economic crisis since the Great Depression – a crisis that leaves poverty rates at record levels, wages stagnant, cities and communities near collapse, public services underfunded, and inequality, and especially racial inequality, growing – our good “friend” Brooks is more worried about government “excess” than what positive actions (moratorium on home foreclosures, public works jobs, a second stimulus, green development, funds for education and infrastructure) the federal government could take to address the economic mess that capitalism has wrought.
He may not want to admit it – in fact, he would probably deny it – but Brooks’ position is not that much different from the right-wing firebrands. On the one hand, he like them, would drastically and immediately scale back those governmental functions and those democratic rights (won in the course of hard struggle) that expand the life possibilities of tens of millions of working and oppressed people.
On the other hand, he, again like them, would tender to the needs of the rich and wealthy. He and his counterparts on the right don’t even mind deficits as long as the deficits serve the needs of the 1 percent. Have you heard any of them scolding the wealthy for their “excessive” demands on the federal government?
If there are differences between Brooks and his fellow travelers on the right, they are differences of style and manner, not of substance and strategic outlook.
David Brooks isn’t Rush Limbaugh; he isn’t Sean Hannity. But don’t mistake his lack of shrillness and soft demeanor for some “third way” when it comes to the role of government in a modern capitalist society.
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