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Name-checking “what Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal once called demosclerosis,” David Brooks devotes his latest column to the fact that “governments have become entwined in a series of arrangements that drain money from productive uses and direct it toward unproductive ones.” The crescendo:
States across the nation will be paralyzed for the rest of our lives because they face unfunded pension obligations that, if counted accurately, amount to $2 trillion — or $87,000 per plan participant.
All in all, governments can’t promote future prosperity because they are strangling on their own self-indulgence.
In his original article, Rauch nails the what of ‘demosclerosis’ while dancing around the why, and Brooks furthers the mystery by pinning the blame on simple ‘self-indulgence’. What is it about ourselves that ‘we’ are indulging?
I’d put it very plainly: our fear and loathing of suffering. The growth of the entitlement state has been driven by a powerful desire to prevent Americans, whether in the public or private sector, from suffering. And the frightful lesson of the past several decades is that minimizing suffering cannot be the mission of government — certainly not among a free people, and apparently not even among a people willing to slip into servitude. Not only is government uniquely bad at funding the sorts of outlays that minimize suffering — the sensitivity to suffering, and the appetite for its minimization, seems to have no limit in democratic times. Put these two pathologies together, and what you see today is what you get.
The real reckoning behind the economic crisis is a crisis of democratic culture. Brooks, dinged by conservatives for his love of muscular government, at least can envision a purpose for government beyond and besides minimizing suffering. That alone puts him on the side of a democratic culture with a future. On the other side are those for whom the war on suffering is the pursuit of justice. Bill Clinton was smart enough to know that government can feel your pain for free; the hard facts of the Obama era make plain that government will go broke before it can take your pain away. Forget, for a minute, the Surveillance State, the Police State, or any familiar symbol of government gone hopelessly wrong. What we can least afford is the Analgesic State, and the fears that it so dearly indulges.