Recently, a newspaper editor wrote to request an opinion piece. “It’s common to deride the federal government, deservedly so, for its endless examples of waste, fraud and abuse,” he wrote. “But what about the things that government does right?”
An interesting question for a conservative to wrestle with. What, indeed, does government do well? The only obvious answer is that it runs the U.S. military.
Our armed forces are the envy of the world, with the best equipment, the best training and the best morale of any fighting force in history. The U.S. can deploy anywhere on the planet, and we’re as likely to use our power to help innocent people as we are to use it to harm our enemies.
For example, when a tsunami devastated parts of Asia, the U.S. Navy delivered fresh water and supplies to survivors. Also, after Hurricane Katrina the situation in New Orleans was dire until the military took over from civilian authorities. Then things swiftly improved.
The American military contributes the bulk of the NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan, and virtually all the warriors who are winning in Iraq. Yet we make it a point to avoid killing civilians. Despite the media frenzy over Abu Ghraib, our military has acted with admirable restraint while our enemies kill indiscriminately. That’s a big reason the U.S. is winning “hearts and minds” in Iraq, while al Qaeda is on the run.
But does our federal government do anything else well?
Paul Light, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, tried to answer that in his 2002 book Government’s Greatest Achievements. “As Americans look for reassurance in this era of vulnerability, at least some can be found in the federal government’s extraordinary record of achievement over the past half century,” Light wrote. But his examples are less than persuasive.
Light says the federal government has been asked to “advance human rights abroad, increase homeownership, expand voting rights, improve air and water quality, reduce the threat of nuclear war” and, finally, “build the interstate highway system.” So, how has it done?
On human rights, the world has made progress. But a good chunk of the credit must go to the U.S. military. Countries and regions where there are many American soldiers (think Germany, Japan and South Korea) tend to be peaceful and successful.
Countries and regions where our military hasn’t based troops (Yugoslavia, Sudan) have been more likely to slide into chaos or even genocide. This might argue for more American military involvement abroad, but the credit goes to the men with the guns, not the bureaucrats in Washington.