Washington can’t change if we ourselves don’t change – and that’s a big problem

by Ryan Streeter on January 10, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

This is a great line from David Brooks’ column today:

You would think that liberals would have a special incentive to root out rent-seeking. Yet this has not been a major priority. There is no Steve Jobs figure in American liberalism insisting that the designers keep government simple, elegant and user-friendly. Sailors scrub their ships. Farmers clear weeds. Democrats have not spent a lot of time scraping barnacles off the state.

Brooks’ column is about the inherent tension in liberalism: a worldview that a lot of people identify with, but an over-reliance upon government, whose dysfunctions they deal with by turning a blind eye. He suggests Obama run in 2012 as a Martin Luther figure (not Martin Luther King, but the 16th century German monk who launched the Reformation and took Rome to task over all of the abuses that had accumulated over centuries), promising to simplify government and scrape away the barnacles.

This could work. It should work. Liberals should be able to shift their agenda and take a lot of moderates and some conservatives with them, but they won’t – for the same reason that conservatives haven’t succeeded in rolling back the welfare state: simplifying government is ultimately an exercise in eliminating benefits and services on which many Americans who say they don’t trust government have come to depend.

I’ve harped on this theme for awhile, and David Brooks touches on it a bit in his column, but Kevin Williamson gives the theme it best recent articulation a January 2012 New Criterion essay:

Williamson’s essay is worth reading for his mini-case study of Topeka, Kansas, alone – a fantastic articulation of just how dysfunctional and absurd government has become –  but the pertinent point here is this:

It is worth noting that many of our long-term fiscal problems are the result of happy developments, not unhappy ones. Social Security is in trouble in part because of declining birth rates, but mostly because we live much, much longer than we did when the program was created. In 1937, the first Social Security taxes were collected; in the decade leading up to that, more than 37,000 Americans died of malaria in the South alone….

We are, in one sense, the national equivalent of the individual who never expected to live past sixty-five and didn’t save adequately for his retirement. In the 1930s, it was hard to imagine that our average life expectancy for a white American woman would hit eighty-one years by the early twenty-first century…

Unwinding the welfare state will not be easy or painless. Just as the sudden disappearance of several trillion dollars worth of home equity produced a nasty and extended recession, the disappearance of “equity” in future entitlement payments—a figure many times larger than the housing losses—will create a drag on economic growth. Never mind that these are only “paper” losses; most of the housing losses were paper losses, too, since relatively few Americans were forced to sell their homes at a loss. Just as Americans had made plans for what to do with that $100,000 or $200,000 in home equity that they erroneously thought they had, Americans have made plans about how to spend their household finances—how to invest, how much to save, where to live, what kind of work to pursue, when and where to retire—based in part on faulty assumptions about future entitlement receipts. Put simply, there are a lot of Florida retirement condos that are never going to be bought by a lot of Wisconsin middle managers, a lot of cruises and vacations that are going to be skipped, a lot of grandkids’ college funds that are not going to be topped up, and the like. In the aggregate, this will depress economic activity significantly, simply because people are going to be less well-off than they had expected to be—again, and not to belabor the point, this is very much like what happened with the vanishing home equity, but on a larger scale.

And hence our conundrum: we Americans, as Brooks says, don’t like government and want to see it simplified, but as Williamson says, we don’t like simplifying it if it means we get less from it. If we want change in Washington, it means we have to change. And who wants to run on that theme in 2012?