Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) debated New York Times columnist David Brooks Thursday morning at the American Enterprise Institute. (Video at the bottom of the page).
The issue was ostensibly "limited" government versus a more "energetic" one -- though both debaters referenced Edmund Burke, arguing this was a false choice.
Ryan began by praising leaders like former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, arguing these men were "no strangers to energetic government" -- but were also widely admired by limited-government, free-enterprise conservatives.
But Ryan went on to say that "big government is lethargic government."
"We should not be asking, 'How big should our government be?'; we should be asking, 'What is our government for?' " he added.
He also said he worried his kids could become more dependent on the government than on themselves.
Brooks got laughs when he noted that he and AEI President Arthur Brooks were not, in fact, related. He later joked that they were both "the illegitimate children of Ayn Rand and Russell Kirk."
Brooks argued that his concern wasn't solely about policy. Criticizing Ryan, he said, "Paul's prose is sometimes at war with his policy. His rhetoric is going to undermine some of the great things he can achieve."
Referencing Burke, Brooks argued that reason is not as important as character, which is created by social bonds. As such, he argued that big or small government is a "meaningless" concept and a "distraction" -- what matters is whether government "builds character or erodes it." He argued this has real-world implications because it means conservatives who are elected come into office with no governing philosophy.
Brooks said Ryan's framing of the issue is the problem -- that we face a stark choice between a free-enterprise-opportunity society and a European-style social democracy that will lead us down the "road to serfdom." He said it is journalistically wrong to assume Democrats want to create a European welfare state. "I just don't think they're as extreme as you make them out to be," he said.
Brooks also argued that we are at a "precious moment" right now, but that if the two parties both have "absolutist dreams" it could prevent Republicans from seizing an opportunity to change things for the better.
Brooks then turned to Ryan and said if President Obama calls and says, " 'I'll take Ryan-Rivlin if you will take a top tax rate of 39 percent' -- I hope you will take that deal."
During the rejoinders, Ryan responded by saying that our nation has gone from assuming our rights were derived from God to assuming our rights come from government. "And so, I do believe that the idea of the role of government has changed," he said.
He also noted the urgency facing us today, saying that if we don't fix the debt crisis soon, interest rates will destroy us and we would then be just engaging in "managed decline." He noted that he did not enjoy casting the debate in such stark terms but that urgency necessitated it. "We owe the country a choice," Ryan said before exiting early in order to cast a vote.
"Our debate is slightly truncated because of big government," joked Arthur Brooks.
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