Tuesday, May 4, 2010

David Brooks On The Limits Of Policy

Cross-posted from The Agenda on National Review Online.

David Brooks has an unusually interesting column in the New York Times today entitled "The Limits of Policy." In it, he makes the case that "bad policy can decimate the social fabric, but good policy can only modestly improve it":
In 1950, Swedes lived an average of 2.6 years longer than Americans. Over the next half-century, Sweden and the U.S. diverged politically. Sweden built a large welfare state with a national health service, while the U.S. did not. The result? There was basically no change in the life expectancy gap. Swedes now live 2.7 years longer.

Again, huge policy differences. Not huge outcome differences.
He cites a study from the Social Science Research Council which shows wide disparities between the achievement levels and life expectancies of various American ethnic groups, and cites another that contends that doubling the income of the poorest Americans would have minimal social impact. His upshot is drawn from Edmund Burke:
Therefore, the first rule of policy-making should be, don’t promulgate a policy that will destroy social bonds. If you take tribes of people, exile them from their homelands and ship them to strange, arid lands, you’re going to produce bad outcomes for generations. Second, try to establish basic security. If the government can establish a basic level of economic and physical security, people may create a culture of achievement — if you’re lucky. Third, try to use policy to strengthen relationships. The best policies, like good preschool and military service, fortify emotional bonds.

Finally, we should all probably calm down about politics. Most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously will have only marginal effects on how we live, especially compared with the ethnic, regional and social differences that we so studiously ignore.
Is this actually true? Both liberals and conservatives might have some objections. Liberals’ favorite example of successful social policy is the 1964 Civil Rights Act. While opponents’ core argument against the Act was grounded in the Tenth Amendment, the degree to which it transformed social bonds in America was both its great strength and also what many of its opponents most strongly opposed.

Conservatives, especially free-market-oriented ones, point to how reducing the burdens of the state, such as with the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, can unleash tremendous economic activity. One can even argue that these Reagan tax cuts helped win the Cold War. Just as with the Civil Rights Act, today the ERTA is not especially controversial. But while opponents of tax cuts usually couch their criticisms in fiscal terms, the degree to which tax cuts undermine the welfare state—and, thereby, in the minds of liberals, the economic security of lower-income Americans—is what truly makes them controversial. (Jim Manzi discusses this problem in depth here.)

But there is an implicit argument in Brooks’ column that again harkens back to Burke: that change is usually bad for social and economic security, regardless of the merits of the new policy. People get accustomed to the way they live their lives, and to their relationship to the government. Dramatically changing these relationships always leads to a period of insecurity and adjustment. A Burkean might contend that, while such change may be required from time to time (such as in 1964 and 1981), most times it’s not. This is one of the reasons why the Texas state legislature only meets in odd-numbered years.

So, while Brooks is basically right, terms like “social bonds” and “economic security” mean different things to different people—which brings us right back to a debate about policy. That is to say, what policies undermine, and what policies promulgate, social bonds and economic security? We are a long way from reaching a consensus on this question.

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