David Brooks and the ‘absurd view’ of government

I’d missed this the other day, but David Brooks took a rather striking approach to the social safety net in his latest column.

When you are the president in a financial crisis, you have the power to pave roads and hire teachers. That will reduce the suffering of real people who would otherwise be jobless. You have the power to streamline regulations and reduce tax burdens. That will induce a bit more hiring and activity. These are real contributions.

But you don’t have the power to transform the whole situation. Your discrete goods might contribute to an overall turnaround, but that turnaround will be beyond your comprehension and control.

Over the past decades, Americans have developed an absurd view of the power of government. Many voters seem to think that government has the power to protect them from the consequences of their sins. Then they get angry and cynical when it turns out that it can’t. [emphasis added]

This seems wrong on all kinds of levels, but it’s Brooks’ use of the word “sin” that really rankles. It’s not even subtle — the columnist is arguing that those suffering in the midst of a weak economy are themselves to blame. Never mind circumstances beyond their control; never mind macroeconomic conditions that have worked against the middle class for far too long; if you’re struggling, you’ve done wrong. Don’t bother looking to Uncle Sam.

Has Brooks ever actually spoken to anyone who’s falling further behind? As poverty rates reach one in six, does the columnist sincerely believe systemic sin is responsible? With unemployment over 9%, is Brooks convinced that all the jobless deserved to be forced from their jobs?

As for the role of the state, Brooks believes the public simply needs to be conditioned — stop thinking government will provide a net, and you won’t be disappointed when government intervention seems inadequate.

But this is backwards. Matt Yglesias had a good item on this.

Here’s a story about bus drivers in Clark County, Nevada getting laid off as a result of state/local budget woes. Are those soon-to-be-unemployed bus drivers really suffering for their sins? Is it really true that a federal government currently able to borrow money at a negative real interest rate can’t do anything to protect them? The amazing thing about this crisis is the extent to which suffering and responsibility are completely out of proportion with one another. If you think about the people who are really suffering in the developed world today, none of them were executives at major banks, none of them were politicians involved in the construction of the euro, none of them were senior financial policymakers in any government, etc.

Governments around the world have immense power to protect people from negative consequences. And they’re using that power. Nobody, thank god, is starving to death in the United States of America. But the government has done immensely more to protect creditors, shareholders, and managers of major banks from the negative consequences of their sins than it’s done to protect bus drivers.