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.
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.