The Real Breakdown

Published April 23, 2012

National Review Online

Jonah already mentioned yesterday’s characteristically vapid Thomas Friedman column. This week’s bit of unconsidered conventional wisdom was that the federal government can’t get anything done anymore because people just won’t sit down together and agree to advance Thomas Friedman’s agenda of the Chinafication of America dressed up as centrism.

The idea that our system is paralyzed by disagreement is very common, especially on the left. But it has very little to do with the crisis of governance we actually face.

In the last decade, we have seen the enactment of, among other things, a large tax reform (the Bush tax cuts), a large education reform, a huge reorganization of our domestic security agencies, a reform of corporate governance (Sarbanes-Oxley), a new Medicare benefit, a massive response to the financial crisis (including several stimulus bills, an unprecedented bank rescue, a bailout of auto companies, and more, crossing two administrations of different parties), a huge health-care reform, a huge financial-regulation reform, and a budget deal with 10-year sequestration spending caps. That is a very active period of federal legislation—certainly more active than the prior decade or the one before that. That doesn’t make it successful of course, since most of these items of legislation (like most items of legislation, and indeed most political contrivances in general) were poorly designed, costly, and ill-conceived. Some were passed along partisan lines and the other party wants to repeal them (like the Bush tax cuts and Obamacare). Others were controversial but are here to stay. But whatever you think of any or all of them, it is not really possible to say that our federal government has become a “vetocracy” (as Friedman does) or is paralyzed by division. It’s true that much of what Friedman wants to see has not been enacted, but that’s because it’s too foolish even for Congress to do.

It is just not true that nothing gets done in Washington. Lots gets done, and there is really only one kind of thing that we are truly failing to do: genuine fiscal reform, which means particularly entitlement reform. Our failure to do this is indeed leading us toward a huge crisis, but the usual liberal complaints about partisanship are more often used as a way of avoiding dealing with this coming crisis than as a way of confronting it.

The fact is that the legacy of the Great Society, especially but not exclusively in the form of the two health-care entitlements of the Great Society, Medicare and Medicaid, now threatens the fiscal future of the government and therefore the economic future of the country. The design of those two entitlement programs was not well thought out in the mid-60s, and in more recent times has been a primary driver of the inflation of health costs that is at the core of both the health-care financing crisis and the government’s fiscal woes. It is far worse than the usual kind of legislative screwup. Medicare and Medicaid, structured as they are, are just the kinds of “bad laws” passed “through haste, inadvertence, or design” that Alexander Hamilton warned against in Federalist 73, and thought the constitutional system’s various restraints would protect us against. The elite governing consensus of the mid-60s represented a failure of those constraints that resulted in a number of costly errors. It was that period, not our own time, that marked a breakdown of our constitutional system.

Now we are stuck having to deal with the consequences of that failure, yet many of our contemporary liberal elites still insist it was not a failure at all, and yearn for that golden age of the 60s when Republicans and Democrats in Congress could get together over coffee and agree to inflate the welfare state without interruption by the unwashed masses blathering on about liberty and the Constitution. Cleaning up the mess left by the Great Society will not be easy, precisely because the sort of consensus it took to pass Medicare and Medicaid is exceedingly uncommon in our republic. Reforming Medicare and Medicaid would seem to require a similar consensus, but no such consensus looks likely now that our constitutional system is, on the whole, working again.

That means that reform will have to be advanced through the normal processes and circumstances of our constitutional system, not around them. The solution will not involve quiet conversations among liberals of different parties, it will involve a political campaign aimed at informing the public and gaining its support. This has never been a pleasant prospect for politicians—simply put, we have not reformed our entitlement system because voters don’t want to, and bringing about such reforms will involve informing voters about the failures of that system and changing their minds, which is not what politicians generally do. But in the last couple of years we have finally begun to see the Republican Party step up and begin that work in earnest. We shall see later this year if the public is open to such persuasion, or if the Democratic Party will succeed in persuading the public to ignore the coming disaster while simultaneously complaining about our paralyzed politics.

Either way, we should not be confused about the cause and the nature of the crisis we face. The elite-consensus government Thomas Friedman yearns for is not the solution but the problem.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.

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