Matt Lewis

You can’t always get what you want

Yesterday, Mitt Romney effectively wrapped up the delegate count needed to assure the GOP nomination. Despite the media narrative that the primary was superficial and largely harmful, it highlighted considerable differences regarding the candidate’s views on the role of government.

I thought of this fact when I read David Brooks’ recent New York Times piece lamenting the decline in how we view the role of government:

[A] government that was energetic and limited was turned into one that is omnidirectional and fiscally unsustainable. A government that was trusted and oriented around long-term visions is now distrusted because it tries to pander to the voters’ every momentary desire. A government that devoted its resources toward future innovation and development now devotes its resources to health care for the middle-class elderly.

Brooks doesn’t mention him by name this time, but I found myself thinking of Newt Gingrich. Here’s Brooks quoting him from a column last December:

Look at American history, Gingrich continued, “The government provided railroad land grants to encourage widespread adoption of what was then the most modern form of transportation to develop our country. The Homestead Act essentially gave away land to those willing to live on it and develop it. We used what were in effect public-private partnerships to bring telephone service and electricity to every community in our nation. All of these are examples of government bringing about public purposes without creating massive taxpayer-funded bureaucracies.”

This was not one of Gingrich’s passing fads. It is one of the most consistent themes of his career.

As out of touch with the zeitgeist as he might have been, Gingrich did have a point.

Consider, for example, President Calvin Coolidge — who is widely considered to be a model for fiscal conservatism. In order to build Mount Rushmore, Coolidge “signed the first large appropriation bill for the project just days before the end of his presidency.” Just imagine the outcry that would take place today if a modern president committed matching funds to such a boondoggle — constructed in the middle of nowhere — that would take 14 years to construct (and would never actually be completed.)

Keep in mind how insane the idea of carving huge sculptures into the side of a mountain must have been at the time — why, it was almost as crazy as building a moon colony!

As Brooks notes, this vision of government — one that thinks Washington can be a driver of change and growth (albeit a limited one) — has collapsed in recent decades amongst the political right.

Liberals, of course, lament this (see Rachel Maddow’sLean Forward” videos). But what people rarely ask (probably because the type of people who might ask probably wouldn’t like the answer) is why.

Might it be the result of mandatory spending programs limiting flexibility when it comes to creating federal budgets?

Part of the reason we were able to create the great public works projects of the 19th and 20th centuries is because we were yet to have such a massively entrenched entitlement state.

For that matter, we also weren’t facing the prospect of permanent defense outlays that dwarfed the rest of the world. Today’s budget-makers know they’re really only working with a fraction of the pie. That’s what makes it so tough to enact budget cuts — let alone pursue the kind of visionary projects Brooks so fondly recalls.

There might yet be a future for such grand projects that bring back to mind the interstate system and great canals of years past. But that can’t happen until we address our — to borrow a Newtonian word — fundamental economic problems. We can choose to do a lot of things in this country. Unfortunately, not all of them are possible at once. Liberals who want to recreate the grand visions of government should be mindful that we can’t because the money just isn’t there.