An insightful conversation is shaping up between two gifted commentators on American government and culture.
The first is David Brooks, a moderate intellectual who is supposed to be the conservative columnist for the New York Times. He is in fact right wing only in comparison to the Times' other columnists.
His article Friday, "The Responsibility Deficit," was particularly perceptive. Brooks' lede:
One of the oddities of the current moment is that the country wants a radical change in government but not a radical change in policy.
On the one hand, voters are completely disgusted with Washington. On the other hand, they have not changed their fundamental views on the issues.
For Brooks' entire column, click here. It is incisive social commentary, not a political tract. Brooks quotes at length from articles by Philip K. Howard, a lawyer and founder of the nonprofit think tank Common Good. Howard writes eloquently about the deficiencies of America's legal system, which limits peoples' freedom to make decisions or to take action because of their justified fear of litigation.
Howard has explored this problem in depth in three books: The Death of Common Sense, The Collapse of the Common Good, and Life Without Lawyers. This Sunday in The Daily Beast, the online journal of opinion founded by Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, Howard published his succinct prescription for the nation's ills in a blog post entitled "Manifesto for a New Politics." Howard explains:
Government is broken. It spends money we don't have, takes no responsibility for the future, and suffocates daily freedoms under a thickening blanket of unnecessary bureaucracy and litigation.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties area to blame. Instead of appealing to our better nature, they promise short-term self-interest of continued entitlements or lower taxes. Instead of leadership for a responsible society, they attack each other with partisan half-truths, oblivious to the critical need to change course.
Changing leaders is not enough. Decades of accumulated law and bureaucracy have made it impossible for anyone to use common sense. New leaders come to Washington and immediately get stuck in the bureaucratic goo...
You can read the entire article, which is not long, by clicking here. It is important to be aware of his five-point agenda, from which we quote the principles.
1. Clean out the stables of government.
2. Radically simplify law.
3. Push responsibility down to local organizations.
4. Restore boundaries to lawsuits.
5. Revive accountability for public employees.
We agree enthusiastically with the principles Howard proposes and Brooks illuminates. How to achieve them, however, is a much more difficult matter. These goals can be accomplished through the political system, or through revolution. We do not advocate revolution, at least not in this country. Therefore we go to the political system. Unfortunately, politics is wired to protect incumbents and frustrate challengers. It is at its strongest not in making progress but in defending its own privileges and advantages. The web of protection includes not only office holders, but the contributors that support them, acting of course for the donors' own benefit.
We then reach the question: How to proceed to accomplish all, or any, of these just and rational goals? How can one pierce the armor of self-interest that protects the privileged, those who wish to become privileged, and the lawyers who will either defend or attack, depending on who pays them?
These questions obviously cannot be answered in an afternoon. We invite our readers to make suggestions as to how these peaks can be scaled. Is political action the answer, or are these goals quixotic and the causes lost before they are attempted? Is economic collapse necessary before the system can be changed? Even if we elect a new President, how can we believe that he or she will keep their pledges, especially since some of them are likely to contradict others?
David Brooks and Philip Howard are sensible, public spirited men, in the moderate tradition of thought. They see a declining culture, and they offer goals which, if reached, would enhance the social contract. The next step is to get started on trying to achieve them. Nonetheless, the old question arises, first expressed in ancient Greece by Aesop, cited by Lord Gray in Scotland in the late 15th century, and repeated as part of the modern Midrash as Rule 17-C:
"WHO WILL BELL THE CAT?"
Follow Henry J. Stern on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nycivic