Paul Ryan, David Brooks debate the role of government
Last week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and David Brooks met at the American Enterprise Institute to debate the topic, “How Much Government is Good Government?” Ryan took up the limited government aspect of the debate, while Brooks - not surprisingly - took up the case for an active government.
Ryan, the wonky administrator, emphasized the need for immediate legislative solutions in order to avoid a fiscal meltdown. “The numbers are vicious,” he said, underlining his contention that responsible governance should focus on responding to the grim math of the federal debt. Brooks, the cerebral cultural critic, responded that the key disagreement was not about particular policies, but about the narrative framework behind them, and he singled out Ryan’s “prose” outlining America’s stark fiscal choices as a problem.
It’s hardly in dispute that narrative matters in politics. The question is what story to spin. And the problem with the tale Brooks wants to tell—and sell—is that it’s the same one that’s led to the unsustainable fiscal situation he claims to want to fix.
For Brooks, the narrative that matters is that government, properly directed, can be a force for good, one that strengthens community bonds, counteracts social ills, and encourage the institutions of family and hard work. On several occasions, Brooks repeated his belief that the government’s job is to help citizens build “character.”
Good luck with that. It’s hard to restrain government under any circumstances, and even harder while singing its praises. The same entitlements that Brooks agreed were in need of drastic reform were products of this narrative: a belief that, with proper planning and expertise, the government could alleviate a wide array of social ills and instill a sense of virtue into the population. Instead, programs like Medicare and Medicaid have grown unwieldy and unsustainable.
The debate is a little over 47 minutes, but it’s worth watching.