Well then, is the increase in home ownership a federal success? For decades Washington tried to crack down on lenders, insisting they couldn’t deny loans to people in poor neighborhoods. Lenders got the message, and created ways to loan money to people with suspect credit. That’s one reason for the creation of -- and, now, collapse in -- the subprime mortgage market.
As for “expand voting rights,” let’s wait until after the Democratic convention this summer before we discuss this. There’s every chance that Barack Obama will win more votes, yet lose his party’s nomination to Hillary Clinton, the ultimate Washington insider.
One of Light’s few actual successes is the fact that, indeed, America’s air and water are cleaner than they’ve been in decades. Federal regulation deserves some credit here, although with a big “but,” because this would have happened anyway.
As people get wealthier, they demand a better environment. Nobody wants to breathe foul air or drink polluted water, but only societies with enough wealth can afford to clean these up.
In the decades ahead China will provide a perfect example. The government in Beijing has almost dictatorial powers, but is afraid to ban pollution because it needs to keep creating jobs. But, once the country reaches a certain level of wealth, the people will insist that the government do something about pollution.
Finally, let’s hop on the interstate highway system. This could be credited as a governmental success story if Light had written his book in the early 1970s. Back then, our highways were state-of-the-art.
But in recent decades, the Highway Trust Fund has become a way for lawmakers to spend tax dollars in their home state or district. Around most major cities roads are overcrowded and commuters lose productive hours sitting in traffic. Yet more than a third of the money Washington collects in gas taxes is spent on projects other than roads, including bike paths, sidewalks and gardens.
There simply isn’t much that the federal government does well. Most everything it gets credit for could be done better and less expensively in the private sector.
That’s worth remembering, especially in this election season. Sens. Clinton and Obama are promising to create a new federal program to take care of virtually every national problem. If they succeed, though, they’ll only end up making most problems worse. Which, after all, is at least one other thing the federal government does well.