William Safire died two Septembers ago in his 80th year. He was a New York Times columnist from 1973 to 2005, sometimes erring but consistently providing a libertarian conservative viewpoint that countered conventional Times big government leanings. David Brooks was his replacement, but he is consistent largely in starting columns with sympathy for advocates of less government and concluding them with calls for more.
One from earlier this month is typical. Brooks begins: "The Republicans, and Rick Perry in particular, have a reasonably strong story to tell about decline. America became great, they explain, because its citizens possessed certain vigorous virtues: self-reliance, personal responsibility, industriousness and a passion for freedom. But, over the years, government has grown and undermined these virtues." Brooks concludes: "The current Republican policy of negativism-cut, cut cut-is not enough. To restore the vigorous virtues, the nanny state will have to be cut back, but the instigator state will have to be built up. That's the only way to ward off national decline."
Between Brooks' conservative beginning and liberal end he tells us more about "the instigator state." Brooks says we need "leadership from government" for a wide variety of tasks: "shifting America's economic model-tilting the playing field away from consumption toward production; away from entitlement spending and more toward investment in infrastructure, skills and technology; mitigating those forces that concentrate wealth and nurturing instead a broad-based opportunity society." He wants Washington "to actively champion a sustainable welfare model." He writes that "Nanny-state government may have helped undermine personal responsibility and the social fabric, but . . . family structures won't spontaneously regenerate without some serious activism, from both religious and community groups and government agencies."
The problem is that government agencies for nearly a century have been the enemies of religious groups. Government, using its taxing power, has worked hard to crowd out religious groups, pushing them out of charitable and philanthropic endeavors from the 1930s to the present, and working hard to keep them from expanding their footholds in education. "Serious activism" from government agencies is antithetical to growing the influence of religious and community groups: Brooks is trying to turn a serial killer into Mother Teresa. Rick Perry has fumbled in presidential candidate debates but his line about working to make government "inconsequential" in our lives is a good one. Having faith in the state as "instigator" works in the pages of The New York Times, but it's a leap of faith most Americans are no longer ready to take.