Feature:Opinion

OPINION: The choice before tomorrow

This article originally appeared on economics21.org.

In yesterday’s New York Times, David Brooks — a columnist of intellectual rigor and much-deserved respect — wrote a critique of the views advanced by the American Enterprise Institute’s president Arthur Brooks and myself. As I told David earlier today, I’m appreciative of his column, which elevates the tone and the substance of the debate to a serious level.

Whether because of a misreading by David Brooks or a failure to make our case with clarity, his column titled “The Day After Tomorrow” seems to obscure the choice that must be settled before tomorrow — and in the process it inadvertently distorts the vital national debate we need to have about the size, scope, and role of the Federal government.

To set the stage: On Monday, Arthur Brooks and I made the case for why America needs to awake from our (collective) sleepwalk away from the founding principles of the American republic.

In broad strokes, what Arthur Brooks and I believe is that we have to decide between an opportunity society, where the government promotes a vibrant free enterprise system and sturdy safety net v. an expanding social welfare state — one where the government assumes greater control of more sectors of the economy and more aspects of our lives.

That doesn’t mean we believe every action by the Federal government is wrong or unwise or even counterproductive. But we do argue — with considerable evidence on our side — that the Federal government has added layer upon layer to its core functions; that it is now on a path that everyone agrees is fiscally unsustainable; and that it is therefore in urgent need of fundamental reform.

We face, if you like, A Time for Choosing.

David Brooks agrees that government ought to be limited — but he is most eager to get on with the “day after tomorrow, after the centralizing forces are thwarted.” I’m as eager as Brooks is for the day after tomorrow. But the critical debate about just how and why the expansion of government needs to be “thwarted” is more important and more interesting, I think, than Brooks acknowledges in his column.

The lines have been drawn. As espoused openly by the current Congressional Majority — and as manifested in their recent, sweeping legislative “achievements” — the core duty of government is no longer to protect natural rights; it is to invent, redistribute and ration new rights. Don’t take my word for it. In a revealing response to questions regarding Constitutional constraints on government, my colleague who sets health care policy in the House Ways and Means Committee responded: “The Federal government can do most anything in this country.”

The challenge goes beyond “the current concentration of power in Washington,” which Brooks rightly opposes. For the record, I first introduced A Roadmap for America’s Future when President George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office. The explosion in government spending and overreach has been a bipartisan failure, not for years but for decades. Politicians continued to make promises that simply cannot be kept. But reaping comes after sowing — and we now face a debt so massive that it will cause, sooner than we think, the collapse of our social safety net. Contrary to David Brooks’ assertion, “simply getting government out of the way” is not our prescription to meet our pressing fiscal and economic challenges.

On the next page: Rep. Ryan discusses his vision for America