A Tribute To The Splendor Of Government

David Brooks, the famous columnist for The New York Times, is one of my favorite conservatives. He is one of my favorite conservatives because, among his other virtues, he is not a Tea Party nut. These days you get bonus points for being both a conservative and politically sane.

Normally I find Brooks to be a thoughtful man of the right, even if I frequently find myself scratching my head and wondering, given all that the right has become in the age of Rush Limbaugh and Fox “News,” why such a bright man remains a man of the right. Then, every now and then, Brooks gives us a hint as to why he continues to fight on the same side that people like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul fight.

A few days ago, the Times published his latest column (“The Stem and the Flower“), his first “in three months” he told us, and if you read the piece closely, you can see why he persists in addressing us as a conservative.

He begins by asking this question:

How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in a normal healthy brain?

He ends by answering:

I figure that unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it, politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun.

Hmm. How nice of Mr. Brooks to quantify for us how much of our mental resources should be devoted to politics. He may or may not have the number right. It might be a little more or it might be a little less. Or much more or much less. I confess I don’t have the slightest idea what a healthy dose of politics might be. I suppose it depends on where you stand, or maybe where you have fallen.

But what I do know is that rich people, especially in post-Citizens United America, can devote themselves to politics all day—every day—because their politically dedicated money never sleeps, even when they do. It never stops working for the political interests of its donors, even if those donors choose to spend time reading Nietzsche or, more likely, Nozick. While the rest of us, if we ever had the fleeting luxury of not worrying about our jobs or our health care or our children’s education, might be thinking about philosophy or about culture or about having fun, all the political money that wealthy people invest in politics and political advocacy would just keep right on working to make sure it accomplishes the mission it was sent out to do.

And Mr. Brooks, a very smart man, never bothers to mention that. He doesn’t bother to mention that our politics is distorted by the influence of moneyed interests. He ignores the fact that the policies our politics produces are often carved into puzzle-like shapes, pieces that when put together happen to nicely complete a picture of a society in which, increasingly, the rich get richer while most everyone else struggles for stagnation.

Yes, it would be nice if all of us had enough free time to enjoy philosophy, culture, and, for sure, having lots and lots of fun. But the truth is that most people have to work hard and hope that their job doesn’t get shipped overseas and that their health holds up long enough for them to enjoy, in their retirement years, the freedom to ignore politics.

As sad as it is that Brooks neglected to mention the primacy of money in our political system, that’s not really the most revealing idea in his column, in terms of why the non-Tea Party writer and thinker continues to call plays for the Republican Party offense. He writes:

We should start by acknowledging that except for a few rare occasions — the Civil War, the Depression — government is a slow trudge, oriented around essential but mundane tasks.

Imagine you are going to a picnic. Government is properly in charge of maintaining the essential background order: making sure there is a park, that it is reasonably clean and safe, arranging public transportation so as many people as possible can get to it. But if you remember the picnic afterward, these things won’t be what you remember. You’ll remember the creative food, the interesting conversations and the fun activities.

That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? He is right that people who go to the park for a picnic usually don’t remember the government’s role in maintaining it, or remember its role in creating and maintaining the roads or rails that got them there. That’s certainly true. But it’s also true that if the park were run down and dirty, if there were weeds everywhere and the roads were filled with potholes, or there were no public transportation available that enabled people to get to the park, then people would certainly remember that, wouldn’t they? They would remember government’s failures, if only because a willing gaggle of journalists would be eager to point out those failures, even to those who have never picnicked in a park or who would never want to.

What Brooks is saying is that if government does its job well, if it provides a public space that is readily usable, if it provides the infrastructure that makes public spaces and picnics in the park possible, then people will focus on the food and the fun. He’s right about that. But then he continues:

Government is the hard work of creating a background order, but it is not the main substance of life. As Samuel Johnson famously put it, “How small, of all that human hearts endure,/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Government can set the stage, but it can’t be the play.

You can see how much sense that seems to make. Who among us thinks that government is “the main substance of life”? Or who would go to the theater just to see the sets on the stage? But when you think about it, when you think about picnics or plays, you can’t ignore how initially vital it is that there are such things as parks and theaters, park workers and stage hands, those resources that make “the main substance of life” possible. But Brooks strangely concludes:

So one’s attitude toward politics should be a passionate devotion to a mundane and limited thing.

No! An emphatic and comprehensive no! There is nothing mundane or limited about government. It is the greatest invention of mankind. Or, if you want, it is the greatest gift given to us by a God of Love. However we got it, government is an absolutely extraordinary thing that does deserve our passionate devotion. A thing so singularly marvelous, so thunderously important, that to call it mundane and limited is to call the civilization it supports mundane and limited. To call it mundane and limited is to exalt the wooden cart at the expense of the flesh-and-blood horse that pulls it.

To borrow Brooks’ reference, public parks, those green manifestations of the civilization that government makes possible, aren’t dull and ordinary places. And there’s nothing limited about them. They are themselves theaters in which Americans can write their own unpublishable scripts and act out their own unfathomable plays. They are places where children run and play, where kites are flown, where lovers meet, where books are read as people lounge on blankets tossed on soft, government-cut grass. Parks are open-air cathedrals where balls are thrown, songs are sung, sometimes in solitude, and Frisbee-chasing dogs make us laugh. They are common only in the sense that they are the commons, belonging to us all, and yet to none of us.

This particular government of ours, the one that provides us parks and peace, is a we-the-people government. Because of that fact alone it won’t do to call it mundane or limited. Given the history of humanity, our collective effort to govern ourselves is not ordinary. And we are limited only by the kind of vision of government that Brooks endorses, a vision that reduces government’s role to one that merely maintains “the essential background order.”

As I said, I like David Brooks. He represents the best of what conservatism has to offer. But I will leave you with a contradiction in his piece, a contradiction born of his need, as a man of the right, to push government into the background. Here is the penultimate paragraph:

So one’s attitude toward politics should be a passionate devotion to a mundane and limited thing. Government is essential, but, to switch metaphors ridiculously, it’s the stem of the flower, not the bloom. The best government is boring, gradual and orderly. It’s steady reform, not exciting transformation. It’s keeping the peace and promoting justice and creating a background setting for mobility, but it doesn’t deliver meaning.

It is here that we can see that Brooks’ Burkean view of government necessarily misses capturing the glory of the thing he is describing. He says that government is “the stem of the flower, not the bloom.” And he finishes by saying that government “doesn’t deliver meaning.” Yet, as his flower metaphor demonstrates, there would be no bloom without the stem. The blossom is not held up by some sort of ethereal scaffolding. It is held up by the stem, a real and splendid piece of essential architecture. The sturdy and stupendous stem does in fact deliver the bloom, and government, because it is the foundation of civilization, does therefore “deliver meaning.”

Government delivers meaning in the same way that a government-sponsored postal service delivers a letter from a loved one, in the same way a government-invented Internet delivers an email from a friend, in the same way a government-maintained park delivers Brooks’ “creative food, the interesting conversations and the fun activities.” Government, to be sure, doesn’t create meaning; it doesn’t write our letters or emails or cook up our food or conversations during a picnic of fun. But in a civilized world, in a world make possible by government, it makes all those things and, yes, even meaning possible.

Government is, indeed, a stem. It supports the many fruits of civilization. Without it, without that stem, this would indeed be a most barren existence. Without it, there would be no flowers. And maybe the biggest difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals aim to cultivate the blooms of civilization by making sure the stem is healthy and strong, by unapologetically championing and nourishing the human ingenuity that supports, or the miracle that sustains, that thing we call government.

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12 Comments

  1. King Beauregard

     /  December 5, 2013

    “philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun”

    It’s because of good government that I am not using an open latrine in December, desperately trying to pass maggot-ridden horse meat. Not sure how much philosophy / friendship / etc I could devote myself to under those circumstances.

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  2. ansonburlingame

     /  December 5, 2013

    Duane,

    “Parks and peace” is the phrase that struck me, above. For sure, about 120 years ago a picnic in a park would never have happened because there were Indians out there scalping picknikers. Create a park all you like, but failure to maintain the peace therein and no one can use the park.

    This wonderful government of which you speak in fact created what we see as Detroit today, did it not? Now go have a picnic in that God forsaken place today.

    Government, largely progressive government pushing the labor agenda has created a huge pool of middle class workers expecting to take lots of picnics, both now while still working and later when retired. Opps! All that money to have time for picnics, later on, must come from …….. Today the source is pension funds and government money for old people. Yet 34 states today have pension funds well below the legal threshold of 80% funding. I also wonder the funding status of such pension funds held by unions and other private entities, not the mention the USPS!!

    Despite the simple fact that the money is not there on the part of the federal government to in fact care for old people, the federal government demands now to make sure working people have all the parks possible to take picnics and provide, through government force, the hot dogs and baked beans as well.

    I wonder which state will be the first one to go bankrupt in America? Illinois seems to be on the leading edge of candidates for now, but don’t ignore CA, either.

    As for nations, well they have been going bankrupt throughout history. They just don’t have a court of law to protect them when such happens.

    Anson

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    • Sedate Me

       /  December 9, 2013

      This wonderful government of which you speak in fact created what we see as Detroit today, did it not? Now go have a picnic in that God forsaken place today.”

      I live but a few hours from Metropolitan Detroit the city of Detroit the town of Detroit the village of Detroit. (Shot out to my homies on Poe Street!)

      Lots of wide open spaces there, but not such a great place for a picnic. But boy-oh-boy is it a GREAT place to cook s’mores. You can barely walk a block without passing a bonfire.

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  3. I am of a mind similar to King B’s about David Brooks musings, but perhaps more circumspect. When I was a kid, America was in World War II and life was simpler then. Or at least it seemed to be. The external threat made for cohesive politics. It was a Norman Rockwell kind of time with collective sacrifice overlaying desperation and determination. In those days, simply having a reliable supply of the basics was sufficient for happiness. For those at home, that is. It helped that having had the Great Depression left everyone with much lower expectations.

    People are materially much better off now than they were then, but I don’t think they are happier. Materialism has, I think, outpaced philosophy. I have to wonder, even if income was better distributed, would that bring happiness back? Clearly, intellectuals like Brooks have the capacity, and the inclination, to derive it from “philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun”, but I wonder about the average citizen. When I observe the behavior of sports fans and of the crowds at Black Friday sales for example, I have to wonder. We are in uncharted territory now. WW II, Korea, the Cold War, the transition to a global economy – all were unique in history. Now we are in the age of materialism. And terrorism. The principal continuity is religious intolerance. Can philosophy survive the transition?

    The crucial element was observed long ago by Abraham Maslow – it’s not so much what people have beyond the basics that makes them content, or not content, but rather their sense of inequality. The question then, as you well describe it, is whether government can achieve a level of equality that will produce contentment and make Brooks’ higher needs available to everyone. It’s not looking good.

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  4. ansonburlingame

     /  December 6, 2013

    Valid observations from Jim, at least in my view. How to accomodate such musings and make progress towards improving the human condition is the great unknown as well. Face it, none of us have all the answers, or even know the correct questions in some cases.

    Anson

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  5. Duane,

    I too am a fan of Brooks, albeit a tepid one. And I love all the metaphors — his and yours. Problem is, a metaphor is a fallacy in rhetoric; especially when used as an argument involving complex ideas like government. Besides, Brooks left out the most important part of his “flower” — the roots — we the people.

    That said, the point Brooks was trying to make — through a labyrinth of analogs from the brain to picnics to the stem of a flower — is essentially that the government’s role here in the U.S.A. is to provide a support system. Or as he put it using yet another metaphor: “Government can set the stage, but it can’t be the play.” OK, I get it. That’s part of the conservative mantra that government should get out of the way and let the private sector do its thing.

    But I see this as naïve. We started as a federalist, democratic republic where the states were supposed to carry out essential government functions, and where factions (political parties) were to be keep at bay. All that has obviously changed and I am disappointed that Brooks didn’t talk to the almost complete reversal of the role of government over the last 226 years.

    We have lost our democratic republic, and replaced it with an elitist plutocracy; Adam Smith has trumped Thomas Jefferson. Today, American values are not based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but rather on property, profit, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. I wish David Brooks would talk to that.

    Herb

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  6. I thought about this for a while, but I don’t think I have anything profound to add.

    I accept that there are things that only the state can do. I think especially, keeping the peace broadly speaking; and second providing for the those who can’t do so. I think that tea parties ignore the latter especially, thinking that small government leads to prosperity, that lead to all boats rising, even for the poorest.

    In fact, I think prosperity means change and that often leaves many behind: the older; the less educated; the geographically immobile; those who just can’t adapt for a lot of reasons. Joseph Schumpeter called this creative destruction, and it is certainly a product of capitalism in the past and now. Free enterprise and free exchange and commercial activity is the best path to a wealthy and growing economy; but I also believe it is unable without a state build safety net to provide for the victim of creative destruction that society as a whole benefits from.

    If find it odd that it is often acknowledged that democracy is just the best of the flawed forms of human governance – it isn’t perfect. Few who advocate free enterprise have the equivalent humility to acknowledge that while it is the best way manage resources of the alternative available – but it isn’t perfect. I acknowledge both that market economies are the best way to build a society in the face of scarcity, but are far from perfect. So I suppose I believe in the strong stem you suggest to provide a softer landing for those left by hand by the progress of capitalism.

    That said, I also like constant attempts to move the state out of functions that can be privatized, and I prefer less growth in the stem than more other things equal. I think that at least in more instances education; road; utilities and other functions that have long been left to the public sector could be moved into the private sector to the benefit of most or all. Liberals have in fact promoted airline deregulation and efforts along these lines, but the belief in your strong (and perhaps steadily growing) stem makes that hard at times I think. Finally growth in the stem is inevitably going to concentrate power in that stem, and the history suggests that is risk, the founders of this nation understood that, and we shouldn’t forget it in evaluating the size of the stem.

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  7. Sedate Me

     /  December 9, 2013

    “I figure that unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it, politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun.” -Brooks

    If thinking about politics 10% of the time makes you a “good citizen” then there’s probably only enough good citizens in the average city to fill a bus shelter. Let’s face it folks, it’s naively optimistic to think 10% of the general population thinks about politics even 10% of the time. Even when they do, it’s at the intellectual threshold of “I want more stuff and I want to pay less tax to get it.” or “Those idiots in Party X need to be shot.”

    The vast majority of folks think of little else other than what Skinnybitch53 said about them on Loserbook, the next college football game, the next Reality TV show, their next tech-toy purchase, how much money they owe from their mindless consumption, how much they’d like to murder their boss and/or spouse, or how much they’d like to bang the neighbour’s wife and/or daughter. If more than 10% of North Americans are thinking about anything else right now, I’ll be shocked.

    The only non-pros who give politics more than a moment’s thought are the folks who can’t stop thinking about it.

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    • The only non-pros who give politics more than a moment’s thought are the folks who can’t stop thinking about it.

      Hmm. I started to argue with you, Sedate, but then I stopped. You’re right. The voting stats show it.

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    • I’m not sure I completely agree with you, but there is, undoubtedly, an awful lot of willful ignorance safely occupying the heads of Americans, even in the heads of those who bother to vote. I am thinking of writing a short post on the latest results of an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in which people polled have low opinions of Congress largely because of its dysfunctionality, but actually now want Republicans, who have engineered that dysfunctionality, to control all of Congress after the 2014 mid-terms. Beyond the normal amount of Republican partisanship built into those results, nothing explains them better than good old-fashioned ignorance.

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  8. ansonburlingame

     /  December 11, 2013

    Perhaps a little off track of the original theme of this post. But still something to consider as we ponder the role of government in modern society. I suspect we all agree that defending America is still a needed role for government. How to do so becomes the issue.

    Now go to http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303562904579227842506498188. It is a short and scathing critique of how we do so within the DOD, today.

    Anson

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