In the pages of the Wall Street Journal , Peggy Noonan wonders if a string of failures for the Obama administration counts as mounting evidence not only against his primary claim to rule, executive competence, but also against the undergirding premises of liberal political philosophy. The debate between liberals and conservatives over the proper role of government tends to occur on an oddly philosophical plane, almost ethereal when you consider the tangible stakes of the contest. We get locked at the horns over the definition of the individual, the precise character of human nature, the conditions for a healthy expression of personal liberty, etc. Of course, these are important questions because they are foundational—any reasonably coherent position will have to offer some answer, however tentative, to each. Still, Noonan’s claim is that the liberal position, if it’s a theory that can boast of any practical attractiveness, has to convincingly advocate one practical premise: the competence of government as a superintendent of our lives.
As Yuval levin has argues over at NRO (I already hit my one link quota), it’s certainly not entirely fair to blame Obama for the BP oil spill catastrophe any more than it’s fair to blame Bush for an act of God. However, both demonstrate the limits of federal government to tame the distasters and dangers that will inevitably visit and revisit us again. I tend to think Obama’s recent rhetoric has been a caricature of the progressive position- he keeps robotically insisting that his response to the spill, whatever that will be and whenever that will occur, will ensure that such a debacle never happens again. In the midst of his own paralysis, and he’s paralyzed because he hasn’t the faintest idea what to do, he stubbornly declares the he will learn to foresee the unforeseeable. He’s been reduced to self-parody, preemptively writing the SNL skits that will surely roast him in the next few weeks.
If big government liberalism is to pass muster then the general competence of American governance has to be demonstrated. We can’t take our bearings by the Swedes or the Finnish—their small scale, demographically homogenous fish bowl republics simply aren’t appropriate models for us. Our own government struggles to function as a well-calibrated machine bacause the public it ministers to is so vast and diverse, its interests so varied and exclusive, its goals so multiple and heterogenous. It has none of the advantages of, say, an American corporation which enjoys the focus that comes with a singularity of purpose and motivation, not to mention the efficiency that is the result of eschewing democratic process. Our government would be much more efficient if it could hire and fire it citizens at will and if its it only inspiration to action was profit. In an unusual way, the proponents of big government liberalism, despite the contempt they often freely show for big business, pine for the same organizational simplicity that makes their success possible.
As goofy as it seemed to many at the time, and any political slogan is a little goofy, the DMV objection to government run universal health care might have some legs. Even if we suddenly conceded the moral argument against big government, that it’s an affont to my dignity as a free individual, there’s still the basic issue of what the government can and cannot do well. I remember angrily insisting when I was a pretty young child to prepare my own lunch for school, precociously assserting my independence from my intrusive parents. I gave that argument up on practical grounds, after I had to eat what I had so freely created. So far Obama’s tenure as president has proven to be unappetizing fare, and as the polls indicate, he’s losing a lot of customers.