What Does That Even Mean?

The Sequestration 'The Public' Deserves?

03.05.13 1:15 PM ET

Ross Douthat has a grimly ironic take on sequestration: Yes it's dumb, but so are we.

[I]f you drew up a policy blueprint based on these preferences, it might well look something like what Congress has actually done: The top tax rate has gone back to Clinton-era levels, discretionary spending and military spending have each taken a big hit, and entitlements have been touched barely at all.

The public may hate the process and the spectacle, but there’s a sense in which they’re getting exactly what they’re asking for.

But what does it mean to say the public is asking "for" something?

(Tougher and more philosophical question: what does "the public" mean anyway? Can we intelligibly aggregate hundreds of millions of individual opinions into one or a few collective opinions? Topic for another day.)

Let's say, though, that "the public" wants peace, security, prosperity, and an adequate safety net. When polled, they say that they therefore favor spending on the military budget, police, jobs, and Medicare. But they probably have little to zero idea of how any of those programs work.

Asking them "do you want to keep Medicare the way it is?" is an extreme case of ask a silly question, get a silly answer. They want Mom to have adequate healthcare. They hope and trust Medicare will provide it. That doesn't mean they have any view of the rate at which hospitals should be reimbursed.

One of the things leaders are elected to do is to show non-specialists how to achieve their ends in better and more rational ways.