We Don't Need Any More Big, Visionary Government
One of the more interesting reactions to the Green New Deal (GND) came courtesy of Ross Douthat. Writing for the New York Times, Douthat offered “one cheer for the Green New Deal,” two cheers shy of a full endorsement. Given that the GND has been roundly and justifiably mocked for its impossibly extreme goals, why would the conservative Douthat offer even so much as a tentative shrug in its favor?
It is the GND’s unabashed radicalism, writes Douthat, that warrants his mild praise. Not that Douthat supports the GND; clearly, he does not. But he does faintly admire its progenitors for their ambition. “[T]here are virtues in trying to offer not just a technical blueprint but a comprehensive vision of the good society,” writes Douthat, “and virtues as well in insisting that dramatic change is still possible in America, that grand projects and scientific breakthroughs are still within our reach.”
Such sentiment is fairly common. Many people pine for the days when our country was at the center of a fast-moving world and seen by many to be bravely combating intergenerational poverty and racial injustice, standing against the spread of communism, and leading the charge in technological advancement, culminating in the climactic moment when our flag was planted on the surface of the moon.
Those swayed by this historical wistfulness, however, forget that America’s greatest accomplishments have come not from the halls of Congress or the Oval Office, but from free individuals. As economist Milton Friedman pointed out, “Einstein didn’t construct his theory under order from a bureaucrat. Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the auto industry that way.” NASA may have put a man on the moon, but we have private enterprise to thank for light bulbs, radios, televisions, smartphones, and a bevy of other technological wonders and products that enrich our daily lives in ways previously unimaginable.
It should also be noted that some of the federal government’s biggest and most promising projects became embarrassing boondoggles. The heavily subsidized transcontinental railroad, for example, was heralded by the Rocky Mountain News in 1866 as the “remedy for every evil, social, political, financial, and industrial.” In reality, the railroad’s construction, economically unjustifiable from the outset, was perpetually mired in a crony capitalistic mess. Both companies contracted to build it would later go bankrupt, and financial misconduct would lead to a variety of scandals. Nonetheless, images of the golden spike being driven into the final rail at Promontory Point still causes many American hearts to swell with pride. It’s natural for them to feel nostalgic for a time when the country was united behind such a “heroic” venture.
But more than anything, it is the mythologies surrounding Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society that inspire modern progressives. The trailblazing reformers of the ‘30s and ‘60s were paternalists par excellence who were not afraid to use the awesome power of the federal government to reshape society in their image. The miserable failure of these prodigious programs could explain why the country has yet to get behind another massive government initiative.
Unfortunately, politicians have continued to offer us fantastic projects over the past few decades. Every presidential campaign season we are inundated with leftist ideas about ending income inequality, constructing high-speed rail systems, establishing universal health care, and instituting “free” college. Just over a decade ago, America bore witness to the election of one Barack Obama, a candidate who could hardly be accused of stinginess when it came to proposing dramatic change. Indeed, “change” was his defining message. In one particularly revealing speech, Obama announced that his candidacy marked “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” For Democrats at least, the hunger for earthshaking transformation was palpable.
Regardless, Douthat is correct when he says that we have not seen any real comprehensive change in recent years. Despite the overzealous rhetoric, eight years under President Obama brought few substantial policy adjustments. The biggest splashes were made by the Supreme Court, not via legislative or executive action, the Affordable Care Act notwithstanding. Even then, the ACA was far from the revolutionary reform it has been touted as, and is certainly not as far-reaching as the “Medicare-for-All” plan or the Green New Deal.
More recent political battles confirm Douthat’s thesis. Two years into President Trump’s first term and his only major legislative achievement is a modest tax reform law. His signature campaign promise, building a wall along the southern border, has yet to be achieved. And with a Democratic-controlled House, it’s unlikely that Republicans will be able to pass any more significant legislation. As Douthat observes, political stalemate has prevented us from initiating any new game-changing programs.
And yet, is the country any worse for the fact that Washington has done so little? A Washington free to "think big" is likely to make things far worse. Many may very well lament, as Douthat does, America’s metaphysical boredom and cultural balkanization, but these problems probably will not be remedied by some big government scheme.
Perhaps we have finally reached a point in our history where we no longer feel the need to look to Washington to direct the future of civilization. If that is the case, there is a tremendous opportunity — and a tremendous challenge — for free individuals to create for ourselves a vision for the good society, just as we have done in the past. Whether America will take up that challenge remains to be seen.