A 20th century wag topped off a famous line from Kipling this way: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . . maybe you just don’t understand the gravity of the situation.”
Five years after the “recovery,” the economy continues to chug along with a puny two percent growth, actually minus in the first quarter. For 2013, growth was a lackluster 1.9 percent. Labor-force participation is at the lowest in years. Youth and minority unemployment nears Depression levels. Traditional marriage is crumbling, with low income families bearing the economic burden. Obamacare threatens the world’s best medical system. Unfunded entitlement promises reaching $40 trillion threaten solvency. The government cannot even care for its veterans.
The Center for Disease Control is found to have mishandled deadly pathogens for a decade, inappropriately sending them to unsuspecting subjects. The National Institutes for Health had vitals of incurable smallpox improperly stored since 1954. The Washington Navy Yard security system was easily penetrated by a former contract employee who killed 12, and 160 cameras of internal traffic were not used to find him. After discouraging Obamacare enrollment statistics, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would no longer report any numbers. NATO and the United States delayed 15 years and $100 million to develop common ammunition for their armies due to environmental concerns. A year into a congressional investigation, the Internal Revenue Service says that emails concerning its targeting of conservative activist groups were lost.
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This is a picture of a federal government out of control—an institution trying to solve every problem and right every wrong but with little idea of how, other than “doing something” to get through the next media cycle. It is a nation with 300,000 regulations but no understandable law. Even pro-government public administration expert Paul Light concludes that an overly bureaucratized national government can “no longer faithfully execute its laws.” The whole welfare state New Deal/Great Society program to centralize power in Washington, to manage the economy, to regulate everything from securities to energy, to force social policies, and democratize the world, has ended tangled in red tape. It is overwhelmed.
Enter “reform conservatism,” which promises a new way. Noting that the Left and the Right are out of ideas, a group of young writers and analysts have come out with Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. The authors of this manifesto agree that the welfare state is trying to do too much and search for ways to curb government and revivify intermediate institutions like the family and civic associations.
The principles set forth in the book’s introduction by the very impressive Yuval Levin are flawless. The conclusion by Ramesh Ponnuru even concedes that much of government “becomes a series of shakedowns, special-interest deals, and programs that continue from inertia” and does not work. But, Ponnuru cautiously adds, if a reformer sees laws and programs that do not fit with our constitutional commands and ideals, he will not vainly demand that they all be abolished straightaway. Instead, he will move patiently and intelligently to bring government closer to its proper bounds.
Things may be bad, but change must be “practical” and “incremental” and not based on radical reform of the constitutional “institutional arrangement.”
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