The Dangers of Being Too Modern

GEORGE F. WILL

April 19, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- In just three months the Clinton administration has defined itself as boring and annoying, an interesting combination of traits.

The administration is on the cutting edge of 30 years ago, the decade formative for the president and many of his people, the 1960s, when they were young and modern. And it is confirming Oscar Wilde's warning: "Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly." Furthermore, by proposing the hugest tax increase in American history as a prelude to Mrs. Clinton's health care taxes, and by revving up the government's already humming regulatory engine, the administration is construing last November's vote as a mandate to increase the public's intimacy with government.

Even Washington's new excitement has a recycled, here-we-go-again flavor to it. The Washington Post offers yet another breathless article of the ''There's pepperoni in the West Wing!'' genre style of journalism, detailing the breakneck pace of life at the White House -- late hours fueled by delivered pizzas. The Post reports: ''Ira Magaziner, who is busy creating a new national health care system . . .''

He must be busy if he is ''creating'' a new one-seventh of the American economy. Of course neither he nor anyone else is doing any such thing. Rather, he and others are planning a further infusion of political supervision into that one-seventh. Such language (''. . . busy creating a new national health care system . . .'') is part cause and part effect of the parochialism of this city, where people really think government officials work such wonders.

In 1967, when Mr. Clinton and much of his administration were in TTC college, Pat Moynihan was dispelling the myth of Washington wonders, describing a persisting pattern:

''The bright idea, the new agency, the White House swearing-in of the first agency head, the shaky beginning, the departure 18 months later of the first head, replacement by his deputy, the general slipping out of sight, a Budget Bureau reorganization, a name change, a new head, this time from the civil service, and slowly obscurity covers all. Who among us today could state with certainty exactly what did become of the Area Redevelopment Administration, that early, shining creation of the New Frontier?''

Perhaps all the areas got redeveloped. Perhaps not.

The shining creations of governmental activism of the 1960s, unlike those of the 1930s, had few glittering consequences because they were not produced by the sort of broad, powerful political forces that produced, say, Social Security and unemployment insurance. What, then, produced much of the activism of the 1960s? The same force that is producing the activism of the 1990s -- a class of professional reformers.

Bred to life in the public sector, the private sector is as foreign to many of them as Mongolia. Their careers do not just depend on the extension of state power, their careers are that extension. They believe that they, being experts, know best. And the fact that there is not much public demand for most of the activism that the experts want is itself proof of the need for the activism. And it is proof of the expertise of the experts who discern the need. They think people need to become wards of government experts precisely because people do not understand what the experts understand.

Hence Mr. Clinton's busy beavers are unsleeping. They think there is much ''neglect'' (how does a neglectful government spend $1.5 trillion a year?) to be rectified. So intense is the administration's determination to regulate America to perfection, that the federal government, according to the Wall Street Journal, will monitor whether cable television companies are answering customers' telephone calls within 30 seconds.

The day the Journal reported that, Mr. Clinton, commemorating the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth, praised Jefferson's understanding of the role of government. Jefferson advocated ''a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.'' Mr. Clinton endorsed Jeffersonianism without blushing. And you thought Ronald Reagan was an actor.

The Journal notes that long ago and far away, during the campaign, when ''reinventing government'' was Mr. Clinton's mantra, there was much talk about market-based alternatives to bureaucratic regulation. But so far, the Journal reports, ''the administration has generally stuck with conventional regulatory tools: detailed rules and more inspectors.''

Speaking of banality, it is depressing to have to conclude that Mr. Clinton's high dudgeon during the Easter egg hunt was heartfelt. Gesturing toward the children gamboling on the White House lawn, he angrily said the children were ''hostages of the Senate filibuster'' Republicans are conducting against his plan to ''stimulate'' our $6.5 trillion economy with a $16 billion pinprick. One sniffed in vain for a welcome whiff of insincerity in his suggestion that the children's future depends on the government borrowing another $16 billion in a big hurry. A touch of jaunty cynicism would make such old fashioned politics less boring.

George Will is a syndicated columnist.

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