“[If I could change one thing about the GOP] I would make it so that every time we are tempted to talk about the size of government we talk also (and more so) about the purpose of government. This would make us more focused on policy particulars than on vague abstractions, better able to offer an alternative to the left’s agenda rather than just slowing the pace of its implementation, and better able to speak to the aspirations of the larger public,”
I’m not a Republican, but there’s no doubt that the size of government is a distraction from the real question of what we want government to do. On the other hand, Democrats and Republicans often want government to do rather similar things – it’s in how they want them accomplished where they differ. They both want to possess the most powerful military in the world, pay for most of Americans’ health bills (as we currently do with Medicare and Medicaid and will do more of under the new healthcare law), have a welfare state of varying degree, promote job growth, invigorate our educational system and so on. Levin’s point, probably, is that we should acknowledge that government may not be the best tool for accomplishing many of these things. Just as important is a much overlooked consideration by conservatives: governing efficiently. As Levin says, concentrating on what we want government to do will allow us to address the “more important question of how to make government more effective and energetic in those areas where we want it to act.”
As Matt Yglesias points out, though, even while we’re having the debate on what government should be doing, we should be debating how it does what it does broadly. For example, even if you don’t think the federal government should be in the business of major wealth transfers, how it does it can make a big difference. In kind payments are not nearly as effective as giving cash or through the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax rebate designed to incentivize lower income people to work more while still receiving stability. This doesn’t mean there won’t be fundamental disagreements about aims, but it does mean that thinking constructively about means should be much higher on the agenda than it currently is.
Picture: My photo, available under CC licence.