Writing of the “guile and subterfuge” often used to pass legislation, Willaim Voegeli points out that such lack of clarity and candor serves a very important progressive purpose:
(To convince) people that government interventions can bestow formidable benefits while imposing negligible costs (and) despite sounding too good to be true, (are) low-hanging fruit ready to be harvested.
If Democrats were forthright and respectful they would have enough confidence in their proposals and their countrymen to speak plainly. They would say: “We’re not idiots; you’re not idiots; and only an idiot could believe it’s possible for government to do big things that help lots of people without also imposing big costs, through taxes and regulations, that adversely affect lots of people. The reason you should support the Democratic agenda is not that we’re magicians who can make something out of nothing. It’s that the benefits of our programs will exceed their costs—so much so that our country and most of our citizens will be better off paying the higher taxes and complying with the more stringent regulations than we would be absent the taxes, the regulations, and the benefits they make possible.”
It’s easy for a sweeping new program to “pay for itself,” when its specific, generous benefits are “offset” by notional stringencies. (The advocates of each one of the sweeping government programs that drive our perma-deficit announced at one time or another that it would pay for itself, if not pay for itself “many times over.”)…
The dark secret always turns out to have been the obvious, commonsense truth that everyone knew all along. Its revelation, long after the law has been passed, refutes the promises about huge benefits that will require no costs, assurances that should have been derided from the start.
Milton Friedman’s favorite maxim—there’s no such thing as a free lunch—doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as a lunch worth paying for at the price listed on the menu. This is true whether the diner is privately or publicly owned and operated. In either case, some lunches are and others aren’t worth the cost. And in either case, an advertisement promising free lunches should make us more skeptical, not more enthusiastic.
The customers shunning Government Intervention today are no less intelligent than the ones who embraced it two or three generations ago. And the GOP, the competing firm disparaging it, is no more aggressive.
What’s changed is that a growing portion of the electorate has come to suspect that the Democrats, while still the party of government in the sense of advocating government intervention as the solution for many, many problems, has become the party of government in other, more disquieting ways. It seems strongly committed to the idea that government should do more, but not that it should do it well. The party of government demands more responsibilities for government, but can’t or won’t demand consistently high performance from government.
But no programs have ended since January 2009. Is it because all of them work? After Presidents Carter and Clinton, Obama has led the third Democratic administration entrusted with operating and improving the megastate for which Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson are largely responsible. All three devoted rhetoric to making it work efficiently and responsively. Carter hailed the transformative power of sunset laws and zero-based budgeting. In 1993 Clinton promised to redesign, reinvent, and reinvigorate the entire national government. In 2011 Obama promised to “merge, consolidate, and reorganize” it, so government would be more affordable, competent, and efficient.
After all these improvements, it should have been easy for the party of government to refute political scientist Steven Teles, who argued in 2013, “America has chosen to govern itself through more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than can be found in any comparable country.” Democrats would have cited endless instances of successful programs and consequential reforms that belied Teles’s contention that “sluggish administration, blame-shifting, and unintended consequences” were pervasive problems. But they didn’t. And their silence suggests they couldn’t.
The public is justifiably dubious about assigning government more powers and responsibilities when even the party of government’s leaders say it needs a complete overhaul—one which they fail to perform and scarcely attempt. And when the costs that were supposed to be trivial turn out to be substantial, while the benefits sometimes do and sometimes don’t come through the pipeline, the skepticism deepens and hardens into cynicism.
Instead of acknowledging the shortcomings of a distant and unionized Federal government in the Age of iPhones, they blame “the ignorant, ungrateful voters or the feckless Democratic politicians who won’t proclaim their triumphs.”
Democrats are only quasi-democratic. They’re adamant about government of and for the people, but dubious when it comes to government by the people. Yes, they say, government must intervene in the economic and social spheres to do what’s good for the people, but the people are often too limited to understand what’s good for them and too ungrateful to appreciate the benefactions government is already delivering