Government in general
Ross Douthat has a very strong column today arguing that the strange outcome of the manifold disasters in the public and private sphere has been more power accruing to those who contributed to the problem. The biggest banks are bigger now that the crisis is over than they were before it began. The nearly-successful terrorist attacks have given more power to the national-security state, while the BP oil spill is going to lead to more power for the regulators who didn't manage to stop it. The financial crisis is leading to a bill that strengthens the regulators who didn't stop it in the first place and the Eurozone's crisis is leading to an EU with more power over its individual members.
Douthat is right about this, but his final rhetorical flourish is unfortunately flip, and quite possibly wrong. These fixes, he says, "tend to make the system even more complex and centralized, and more vulnerable to the next national-security surprise, the next natural disaster, the next economic crisis." But when you drill down to the individual decisions, there's little evidence of that.
Does splitting the side of the Minerals Management Agency that raises money from oil companies from the side that regulates them really make the next spill more likely? That seems unlikely. Does giving regulators more power and tools to dissolve large banks really make us more vulnerable to the next economic crisis that forces us to dissolve large banks? I don't think that stands up.
But Douthat doesn't get into specifics here. Instead, he uses a rhetorical move that I've noticed fairly frequently among conservative commentators sympathetic to Obama's agenda but discomfited by the growth in government. "Taken case by case," Douthat writes, "many of these policy choices are perfectly defensible." Or, to put it in David Brooks's words, "Each of these projects may have been defensible in isolation, but in combination they created the impression of a federal onslaught." Taken case-by-case, those lines may be perfectly defensible. But together, I think you're seeing something less defensible.
It's a sentence that absolves the writer of having to say what he or she would've done differently, which makes broad-brush criticism a lot easier. "Centralization" sounds like a bad thing, and maybe it is. So does a "federal onslaught." But maybe not! Just as these decisions were made on a case-by-case basis, they have to be critiqued on one, too. But the case for government, and for things such as letting big banks purchase failing banks, looks a lot stronger when it's examined on a case-by-case basis than when it's viewed in general terms. So there's a preference to move toward the general rather than say how you'd handle financial crises or offshore oil drilling or terrorism in a way that didn't empower the government.
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