Commentary Magazine


The Role and Purpose of Government

On the website e21, Representative Paul Ryan has responded to a column by David Brooks, who in turn was commenting on an op-ed by Ryan and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Charles Murray added his thoughts as well.

The subject they are addressing is the role and purpose of the state in our lives. I would add only a few thoughts to what these razor-sharp minds have written.

The first is this: more than at any point in our lifetime, the sheer cost and size of government matters. We face an entitlement crisis. The level of our deficit and debt are unsustainable. Demographics are working against us rather than in our favor. And the Obama presidency has made our fiscal problems more, not less, acute. Unless we begin to reverse this trend fairly significantly, America will change in deep and lasting ways. We cannot continue on our present course and remain a strong, vibrant society. There is an urgent need, then, to re-limit government simply as a matter of dollars and cents, quite apart from philosophy and the effects the nanny state has on human character and self-reliance.

That said, conservatives also need to engage in a thoroughgoing examination of the core purposes of programs and policies. And in considering how to reform government programs, we need to think in terms of what we want them to do rather than simply how large and costly they are.

Consider four successes by government in the past 20 years: welfare reform; crime reduction (including the transformation of New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani); the campaign against illegal drugs in the late 1980s and early 1990s led by William J. Bennett; and the surge in Iraq. In each of these instances, the key to success wasn’t limiting the size of government; in each case, after all, government spending went up, not down. What transformed failure into success was acting smarter, creating the right incentives and disincentives, attacking the problems in a comprehensive way, and thinking in terms of what works.

What we need, then, are policymakers who believe in accountability; who judge results based not on inputs (expenditures, number of caseload workers, police officers, or troops) but outputs (cutting the number of people on welfare, decreasing drug use, reducing crime rates, lowering the number of ethno-sectarian deaths, car bombings, suicide attacks, and terrorist safe havens); who are passionately empirical; and who understand that we need to craft programs so as to take into account human nature and human behavior.

When it comes to entitlement programs, our task is different from, say, an anti-crime strategy. On entitlements, our first priority needs to be cutting costs in order to avoid a fiscal calamity. That will require us to alter the way we think about the basic aims of these programs. And here, I think, is where we eventually need to go: gradually and thoughtfully transitioning toward a means-tested system of benefits in place of the current Social Security and Medicare systems.

All these matters need to be examined in more depth. My hope is that Messrs. Brooks, Ryan, Brooks, and Murray continue to deepen this discussion and, in the process, pull other thoughtful voices into it. They could hardly perform a more useful intellectual and civic role.

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