[Editor’s note: This is Michael Lind’s response to Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s “The ‘More What, Less How’ Government,” which ran in our Winter 2011 issue. It will be published in our Spring 2011 issue.]
Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer performed a great service for American progressivism when they sought to rehabilitate American patriotism for the liberal left in their book The True Patriot. Their contribution to Democracy’s “First Principles” symposium, “The ‘More What, Less How’ Government,” [Issue #19] is also provocative and insightful, but they repeat too much of the discredited conventional wisdom of the neoliberal movement of the 1980s and ’90s.
Liu and Hanauer are right to note that, while Tea Party conservatives offer “little more than a reprise of unworkable ideas and worn rhetoric about ‘limited government,’ ” in reality “there is not a single example to be found of a nation that practices ‘limited government’ and is wealthy, secure, and stable.” They are right as well when they complain that progressives are “in a defensive crouch” and there is a need “to articulate, during this time of flux, an affirmative progressive theory of government.”
Their proposed alternative theory of government is the opposite of what they call the “mushy amalgam” of the mid-twentieth century. In their account, the “mushy amalgam” combines the conservative belief that the federal government should concentrate on providing a few basic public goods with the liberal belief that many, if not most, of those goods could be provided most cheaply and efficiently by direct, national government action.
In place of “the New Deal/Great Society template,” they propose a government that does more things—but does them indirectly. The “more” category includes an expansion of the federal government’s role beyond providing basic goods, to projects like peacetime national service. They endorse Cass Sunstein’s proposal that “choice architects” in the government should “nudge” people toward doing the right thing in matters like diet or energy use, rather than relying on direct prohibitions or commands. While their ideal government would pursue a greater variety of social goals than midcentury New Deal government did, it would do so less directly on the national level, by privatizing and contracting out more government services, and by “radical” relocalization of other public functions.
Liu and Hanauer’s argument is thoughtful, but this Rooseveltian liberal is unpersuaded by this talk of allegedly superior alternatives in the tradition of the Clinton-Blair “Third Way.”
Read the rest here.