The Vigorous Virtues
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: September 1, 2011
There’s a specter haunting American politics: national decline. Is America on the way down, and, if so, what can be done about it?
But, over the years, government has grown and undermined these virtues. Wall Street financiers no longer have to behave prudently because they know government will bail them out. Middle-class families no longer have to practice thrift because they know they can use government to force future generations to pay for their retirements. Dads no longer have to marry the women they impregnate because government will step in and provide support.
Moreover, a growing government sucked resources away from the most productive parts of the economy — innovators, entrepreneurs and workers — and redirected it to the most politically connected parts. The byzantine tax code and regulatory state has clogged the arteries of American dynamism.
The current task, therefore, is, as Rick Perry says, to make the government “inconsequential” in people’s lives — to pare back the state to revive personal responsibility and private initiative.
There’s much truth to this narrative. Stable societies are breeding grounds for interest groups. Over time, these interest groups use government to establish sinecures for themselves, which gradually strangle the economy they are built on — like parasitic vines around a tree.
Yet as great as the need is to streamline, reform and prune the state, that will not be enough to restore America’s vigorous virtues. This is where current Republican orthodoxy is necessary but insufficient. There are certain tasks ahead that cannot be addressed simply by getting government out of the way.
In the first place, there is the need to rebuild America’s human capital. The United States became the wealthiest nation on earth primarily because Americans were the best educated.
That advantage has entirely eroded over the past 30 years. It will take an active government to reverse this stagnation — from prenatal and early childhood education straight up through adult technical training and investments in scientific and other research. If government is “inconsequential” in this sphere, then continued American decline is inevitable.
Then there are the long-term structural problems plaguing the economy. There’s strong evidence to suggest that the rate of technological innovation has been slowing down. In addition, America is producing fewer business start-ups. Job creation was dismal even in the seven years before the recession, when taxes were low and Republicans ran the regulatory agencies. As economist Michael Spence has argued, nearly all of the job growth over the past 20 years has been in sectors where American workers don’t have to compete with workers overseas.
Meanwhile, middle-class wages have been stagnant for a generation. Inequality is rising, and society is stratifying. Americans are less likely to move in search of opportunity. Social mobility has been flat for decades, and American social mobility is no better than European social mobility.
Some of these problems are exacerbated by government regulations and could be eased if government pulled back. But most of them have nothing to do with government and are related to globalization, an aging society, cultural trends and the nature of technological change.
Republicans have done almost nothing to grapple with and address these deeper structural problems. Tackling them means shifting America’s economic model — tilting the playing field away from consumption toward production; away from entitlement spending and more toward investment in infrastructure, skills and technology; mitigating those forces that concentrate wealth and nurturing instead a broad-based opportunity society.
These shifts cannot be done by government alone, but they can’t be done without leadership from government. Just as the Washington and Lincoln administrations actively nurtured an industrial economy, so some future American administration will have to nurture a globalized producer society. Just as F.D.R. created a welfare model for the 20th century, some future administration will have to actively champion a sustainable welfare model for this one.
Finally, there is the problem of the social fabric. Segmented societies do not thrive, nor do ones, like ours, with diminishing social trust. Nanny-state government may have helped undermine personal responsibility and the social fabric, but that doesn’t mean the older habits and arrangements will magically regrow simply by reducing government’s role. For example, there has been a tragic rise in single parenthood, across all ethnic groups, but family structures won’t spontaneously regenerate without some serious activism, from both religious and community groups and government agencies.
In short, the current Republican policy of negativism — cut, cut cut — is not enough. To restore the vigorous virtues, the nanny state will have to be cut back, but the instigator state will have to be built up. That’s the only way to ward off national decline.