David Brooks is wrong: Size matters!

In Monday’s New York Times, David Brooks criticizes the politics surrounding the ongoing debate about the size and focus of government.

A key point in his analysis is that the current focus on the size of government (i.e. the percent of GDP consumed by government) “doesn’t tell you what you need to know.” Brooks maintains that “the social and moral content of government action does.” He goes on to cite a couple of government programs he thinks were successful and at least one he perceives to have failed.

His complaint about recent government initiatives is based on what he describes as a societal “loss of values.” He sees too much focus on consumption for the here and now, and not enough focus on investment for the future. He blames this failure of agenda on both business (capitalism) and government.

The “Brooks Doctrine” is that we’d be better off if only we could overcome political gridlock based on partisan or ideological talking points and focus on getting things done. He sees the arguments over the size of government to be counterproductive and recommends placing what he terms as an “Achievement Test” back at the center of politics.

This “Achievement Test” would focus on the balance between short-term consumption and long-term investment, with a goal of making the country more productive by shifting resources towards long-term objectives. Brooks sees this as a path to productive “horse-trading” that could bring liberals and conservatives together.

Brooks is often referred to as a New York Times conservative, which is a euphemistic phrase that means “mostly liberal.” He is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful person who keeps up-to-date on matters political and social, but he has fallen into two common traps: that compromise is a positive force and that political disputes reflect honest disagreements about what is best for the country.

Politics is mostly about the distribution of wealth and power. Liberal collectivists use issues of fairness, social justice, and compassion to make their argument that the government must do more to help whoever they see as needing help (or whoever can get them reelected). Conservative individualists believe that maximum individual liberties (versus state control) and free-market capitalism in an environment of domestic tranquility protected by tough-on-crime and strong-on-defense strategies provide the best path to peace and prosperity.

The “Brooks Doctrine” makes the flawed assumption that both liberal and conservative philosophies are equally valid. This is empirically false. Collectivism and identity politics may succeed in buying votes, but these socialist-like policies have universally failed wherever and whenever they have been tried (read Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek if you require proof). Conservatism is not without its flaws, but its history is one of freedom and prosperity. Philosophy matters!

The ad hoc approach that Brooks seems to support has both good and bad elements to it. It is good to measure the success or failure of each government program, but it is flawed to think this can be done in a vacuum. Every organization, even one as large as the US government, has limited resources. Therefore, the value of any initiative needs to be measured against the alternative uses of the limited resources needed to fund it.

Evaluating government programs and policies requires setting priorities, for there are always more good things to do than there are resources with which to do them. Brooks is right that the size of government, in and of itself, is not the problem. However, the size of government is an accurate reflection of how much government is intruding on the liberties and opportunities of its people. Size matters!