The Forgotten Achievements of Government

Although conservatives portray government as incompetent, public sector programs have actually amassed an admirable record of success in a wide variety of policy areas.

One of the most persistent myths about American government is that it has a poor record of achievement. Conservatives and libertarians have constantly promoted the idea that government fails more often than it succeeds. They have been telling Americans for years that government is an incompetent institution that has achieved little of real value in society. As one conservative critic put it: “The more important question is not why government is so big … but why with few exceptions, it fails in even its simplest tasks.”1 Another critic, Charles Murray, puts it even more bluntly: “The reality of daily life is that, by and large, the things the government does tend to be ugly, rude, slovenly – and not to work.”2 Or consider the bold challenge uttered by Rush Limbaugh on one of his radio shows: “With the exception of the military, I defy you to name one government program that has worked and alleviated the problem it was created to solve. Hhhmmmmmmm? I'm waiting. . . . Time's up.”3

The Stereotype: Government as Bungling and Inept

Many of us have bought into this image of government as a bungler – a bunch of bureaucrats that can’t do anything right. Ask most Americans and they will tell you: if you want something messed up, have the government do it. We’ve all heard the jokes:

Q: How many government bureaucrats does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Two. One to assure everyone that everything possible is being done while the other screws the bulb into the water faucet.

Q: How many government workers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Two. One to screw it in and one to screw it up.

This popular view of government as a low-achieving screw-up is echoed in many surveys as well. When asked, “When the government in Washington decides to solve a problem, how much confidence do you have that the problem will be solved?” only four percent of Americans said “a lot.” Sixty-four percent said “none at all” or “just a little.” Of these, more than a three out of four said the reason was “government is incompetent” not that “those problems are often difficult to solve.”4 Surveys also show that a large majority of citizens (70%) believe that “government creates more problems than it solves."5 Clearly, for many Americans, government is the Inspector Clouseau of institutions.

But how accurate is this popular image of the government as a bumbling fool? Actually, this is largely a stereotype – one based primarily on myth and selective anecdotal evidence. Of course anyone can cite a number of failed government policies – such as the war on drugs or public housing programs. But it is wrong to leap from this kind of anecdotal evidence to the conclusion that government as a whole is inherently incompetent. The reality is this: most government programs are successful most of the time. By and large, the public sector does a good job providing clean water to drink, keeping the peace, sending out Social Security checks, reducing workplace injuries, ensuring aircraft safety, feeding the hungry, putting out fires, protecting consumers, and so on.

Once we begin to look at the actual performance of major government programs, we see that the vast majority of them have produced substantial improvement in the problem areas that they are addressing – they have produced successful results. This is not the conventional wisdom, but it is what the evidence shows if you bother to look at it. Let’s consider some of that evidence.

An Initial List of Government Achievements6

Let’s start by taking up Rush Limbaugh’s challenge: can we name any government programs that have worked? Actually, that is quite easy to do. What follows is a short list of some of the federal government’s greatest accomplishments. These are policy programs that have not only worked, but have been very successful and have greatly improved the quality of life of most Americans.

  • Regulation of the Business Cycle. Until the financial crisis that began in 2008, most of us had forgotten how dependent we are on the federal government to prevent economic depressions. Since the 1930s, the government has used a variety of monetary and fiscal policies to limit the natural boom and bust cycles of the economy. Before government took on this responsibility, severe depressions were a routine and recurring problem in this country – occurring in 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907 and 1929. Thanks to government intervention, we have been able to avoid the enormous amount of human suffering caused by these massive economic meltdowns – the widespread joblessness, the destitution, the rampant hunger, the disease, the riots, the hopelessness and the despair. By any measure, eliminating these depressions and this misery has been one of the greatest – and often unheralded – achievements of our federal government.
  • Public Health Programs. A variety of programs run by the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local Public Health departments have greatly improved the health of most Americans. For example, the scourges of polio, cholera, and smallpox have been effectively eradicated from this country – a huge achievement. And vaccination programs have reduced by 95% our risks of contracting potentially debilitating diseases like hepatitis B, measles, mumps, tetanus, rubella, and diphtheria. Federal funds spent on buying and distributing these vaccines have saved countless lives and the billions of dollars it would cost to treat these illnesses. In addition, the dedicated scientists who work for the CDC are all that stand between Americans and a potentially catastrophic epidemic imported from abroad. The most likely and worrisome threat is from a new and deadly strain of bird flu. The last deadly flu epidemic to hit the United States, in 1918, killed over 675,000 people in matter of months.
  • The Interstate Highway System. Started by the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, this system now forms the backbone of long-distance travel and commerce in the United States. It makes up less than 1% of our highways, but carries almost a quarter of all roadway traffic. It has also allowed millions of Americans to move out of big cities and live in more pleasant suburban and small town environments. In addition, the interstate system has the benefit of being considerably safer than the old two-lane highways it replaced – saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Even some conservatives have been forced to admit the success of this building program, with George Will calling it “the most successful public works program in the history of the world." It’s hard to imagine the U.S. without this interstate highway system, and this system would not exist at all if it weren’t for the government.

Photo: Sunday Morning Comics

 

  • Federal Deposit Insurance. Another government program we've taken totally for granted until recently is federal protection of our bank deposits. In bad economic times, banks are inherently vulnerable to destructive "runs" – where worried depositors all seek to take out their money at the same time. Before the FDIC, in the depression of the 1930s, over 5,000 banks went bust and millions of Americans lost their savings. The main reason we had no disastrous runs on banks (and money market funds) during the financial panic of 2008 was that government was there to guarantee those deposits.
  • Social Security and Medicare. Without these two government programs, growing old would be hell for many Americans. Before Social Security and Medicare, millions of the elderly were doomed to spend their retirement years in poverty and illness. Social Security has cut the rate of poverty for the elderly by over half – from 29% in 1966 to 10% today. Not surprisingly, financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn has described Social Security as “arguably the U.S. government's greatest success.” Medicare has also been incredibly successful. It has doubled the number of the elderly covered by health insurance, so that 99% now enjoy that benefit. Without this form of “socialized” medicine, 15 million of our neediest citizens would be going without many vital medical services and many would have to choose between food and medicine. Older Americans are now living 20% longer, thanks in part to this effective program. These two programs have done more than anything else to relieve the pain and suffering of our elderly population.
  • GI Bill Without this program, the middle class as we know it would not exist. The GI Bill provided government funds for 16 million World War II and Korean veterans to attend college. It allowed my father to become the first one in his family to graduate college, to become an engineer, and to go on to build a middle-class life for our family. Historian David Kennedy has remarked that “GI Bill beneficiaries changed the face of higher education, dramatically raised the educational level and hence the productivity of the workforce, and in the process unimaginably altered their own lives.”7
  • Federal Housing Authority. The middle class housing building and buying boom in the United States was initially financed by cheap GI Bill housing loans and by Federal Housing Authority insurance of conventional home loans. In 1945, only 44% of Americans owned their own home. But thanks in large part to the FHA program that lowered interest rates and down payments, 63% of Americans owned a home by 1968. These homes have become a multi-generational source of wealth for tens of millions of Americans. The FHA still insures over $50 billion a year in mortgages, and remains especially important for low-income house buyers.
  • Consumer Protection. In reaction to increasing public pressure in the early 1970s, government began to pass legislation to protect consumers from shoddy and dangerous products. The Consumer Product Safety Commission remains the key agency enforcing these laws. The need it fills is still a vital one – products kill over 20,000 consumers a year and injure over 25 million more. It would be far worse if the CPSC did not recall hundreds of products every year. It is estimated that its activities produce $10 billion in savings on the health care bills, property damage, and other costs associated with these defective products.

 

 

  • Anti-Discrimination Policies. Since the 1960s, policies like the Civil Rights Act and Title IX have chalked up impressive gains in decreasing discrimination against minorities and women. Racial segregation in hotels, restaurants and other public facilities has been eliminated. Housing discrimination and workplace discrimination, while not completely eradicated, have been substantially reduced. College enrollment for minorities has greatly increased, jumping 48% during the 1990s alone. In terms of gender, workplace discrimination and sexual harassment have decreased and record numbers of women are now attending colleges and graduate schools. There is still room for improvement – particularly in the area of equal wages – but it is clear that these policies have made substantial progress in eliminating racist and sexist practices that had existed for hundreds of years.
  • Clean Water and Clean Air Programs. America’s water and air are significantly cleaner than they were in the 1960s, thanks to federal legislation. The levels of four of the six air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act – nitrogen dioxide, smog, sulfur dioxide, and lead – have been reduced dramatically, by an average of 53%. The quality of the air has significantly increased in virtually every metropolitan area in the U.S. The Clean Water act has been similarly successful. When it was passed in 1972, only one-third of the nation’s waterways were safe enough for fishing or swimming. Today that has doubled to two-thirds. And while only 85 million Americans were served by sewage treatment plants in 1972, that figure has now risen to 170 million.
  • Workplace Safety. Businesses love to complain about the rules of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and sometimes its policies have been a bit overboard – but it has clearly been very effective in greatly increasing the level of protection for American workers. In 1970, the year before the creation of OSHA, 22,000,000 people were injured on the job and 14,000 died from job-related injuries. Since then, OSHA has helped to cut occupational injury and illness rates by 40 percent. Even more important, between 1980 and 2002, workplace deaths fell from 7.5 per 100,000 workers to 4.0. Particularly impressive has been its success against brown lung disease among textile workers, which has been virtually eliminated.
  • The Military. Even Rush Limbaugh, who has never met a government program that he likes, admits that the U.S. military is a great success story. Although debates continue to rage over how the military should be used, there is complete agreement that our Army, Navy, and Air Force are the most effective military organizations in the world today. We have the best trained and the best equipped armed forces, and they have an unparalleled ability to effectively project military force – as was demonstrated in the two recent Gulf wars. In the case of the military, the government has clearly done an exemplary job of creating a well-working and effective organization.
  • The West. Although few Americans think about this, much of the Western United States as we know it today is the creation of various federal programs. It has been that way from the very beginning, starting with government-sponsored explorations of the West in the early and mid-19th century. It continued with the federal government providing the money and troops for the depressingly efficient program of “Indian removal.” The government also sold public land to settlers for low prices and sometimes even gave it away. The railroads, which spurred so much growth in the West, would not have been built without massive subsidies from the federal government. And today, much of the farming in many Western areas is made possible by federal water projects, substantial parts of the ranching are subsidized by the artificially low grazing fees on federal property, and much of the mining is made more profitable by dirt cheap access to federal land. Cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas would dry up and blow away without the federally funded dam and canal projects that provide water to those arid regions. So it is ironic that while anti-big government sentiment is very strong in parts of this region, the West literally would not and could not exist as it does today without the sustained help of the federal government.
  • National Weather Service. This government agency not only makes your life more convenient by forecasting your daily weather, it also helps to ensure the safety of planes in the air and ships at sea and it has saved countless lives with its hurricane and tornado warnings. It also just keeps getting better. It’s predictions of hurricane paths has improved by fifty percent during the past 15 years; and its forecasts of weather 72 hours in advance is now as reliable as 36-hour forecasts 25 years ago.
  • Poverty Policies. This may seem counter-intuitive. Everybody knows that poverty policy is the classic example of government failure. How could it possibly be considered a success when the poverty rate is essentially the same as it was thirty years ago? The answer is that most of the policies aimed at the poor in the U.S. were never intended to get them out of poverty. They were only intended to alleviate the suffering of the poor – and studies have shown that they have been very successful in doing this.8 For example, food stamps have worked to greatly reduce hunger and malnutrition among the poor. The poor are much healthier and have more access to medical treatment thanks to Medicaid. And rent subsidies have allowed many of the poor to move out of places with leaking roofs, inadequate heat, and faulty plumbing. These three programs form the backbone of our anti-poverty efforts – their combined budgets are eight times larger than that for welfare – and in terms of achieving their stated goals, these programs have to be considered impressive government successes.
  • Student Financial Aid Programs. College is getting increasingly expensive and more and more students require financial help to attend. The federal grants, loans, and work study money provided by the Department of Education form the largest source of college financial assistance, providing billions of dollars in funding each year. These programs have worked to remove financial barriers for students and thus create more equal opportunity in higher education. They have been a major factor in producing the rapid increases in college enrollment seen in the last 50 years, and they have also contributed to the increasing class and racial diversity of the college population.
  • Food and Drug Safety Programs. The federal government enforces extensive rules to protect the public from tainted food and directly regulates both the meat and poultry industries. It also plays a key role in ensuring the safe use of pesticides on agricultural products, both from here and abroad. Federal authorities are also on the frontlines in combating new threats to our food system, such as mad-cow disease. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration ensures that the drugs we take are pure and effective – an enormously complicated enterprise. Every year the FDA identifies almost 3,000 products that are unfit for consumption and ensures their withdrawal from the marketplace. Americans are undoubtedly safer and healthier thanks to these government programs.
  • Funding Basic Science Research. Most research on basic scientific topics – in physics, biology, chemistry, etc. – does not have immediate commercial applications and so this work is highly dependent on government funding. Federal funds pay for 80% of the basic science research in this country, through laboratory facilities in universities and in government agencies such as the National Institutes for Health. For this reason, the government deserves a great deal of credit for the important scientific and technological breakthroughs produced by these efforts. In just one area – biomedical science – basic research has provided the foundation to develop new diagnostic technologies, such as nuclear magnetic resonance machines, and new treatments for cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases. It is revealing that nearly half of the most important medical treatments in the field of cardiovascular-pulmonary medicine have their origins in basic research attempting to unravel the mysteries of the lungs, heart, and muscles – work done by scientists not working in this specific disease area.9 Beyond such practical payoffs, government-funded basic research has also made important progress in answering many of the most profound questions that have baffled humanity for centuries: What is the nature of matter and energy – and the nature of reality itself? How did the universe begin? How will it end? Are we alone in the universe? What is the nature of life – and how did it begin? The achievements of basic science in the United States have been many and stunning – and these are achievements of government as well.

  

 

Pretty impressive – and this list could go on much further. Other clearly effective programs and policies would include our National Parks, the Voting Rights Act, Rural Electrification, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, the Cooperative Extension Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Crime Information Center. And again, these are just the accomplishments of government on the federal level – they don’t count the thousands of other successful public sector endeavors on the state and local level.

All of these programs have worked exceptionally well and have made substantial progress in dealing with the problems they are addressing. And many of these problems have not been easy ones to tackle. Regulating the economy, controlling diseases, dismantling segregation, and protecting the environment have all been inherently difficult and complex endeavors, which only makes these achievements of government even more impressive.

A More Comprehensive Look at the Evidence

But while such lists of achievements can go a long way toward invalidating the popular notion that government is inherently incompetent, there is even better evidence available. Ideally, the best evidence would be a comprehensive evaluation of how government is doing in addressing our major societal problems – one that looked at both our successes and our failures in these areas. Surprisingly, this kind of study has rarely been attempted – undoubtedly because it is a very daunting task. But fortunately, a study in this vein was conducted in the 1990s by Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard. In State of the Nation, Bok set out to evaluate how American society was doing – whether things were generally getting better or worse in this country.10 To do this, he first identified a wide ranging set of societal goals that most Americans agreed upon – such as a growing economy, high quality health care at a reasonable cost, personal freedom, reduction of poverty, a high per capital income, clean air, equal opportunity in hiring, lower crime rates, retirement security, and so on. He eventually identified seventy five of these goals which he divided into five categories: prosperity, quality of life, opportunity, personal security, and values. For our purposes, much of what is interesting about these goals is that almost all of them are the subject of one or more government programs. This means that we can use progress or lack of progress in these areas as a rough indicator of the effectiveness of these programs. Bok established generally how much progress we’ve made in furthering these goals between 1960 and 1990 – rating the situation in each of these areas as “improved,” “about the same,” or “worse.” In the end, Bok found that the country had improved in the vast majority of these areas – more than two-thirds. These areas of improvement included:

 

Amount of air pollution

Amount of water pollution

 

Average retirement income

Percent of elderly in poverty

 

Equality of opportunity

Voting rights

 

Extent of pre-natal care

Housing discrimination

 

Life expectancy

People covered by health insurance

 

Per capita income

Worker productivity

 

Percent of population owning houses

Number scientists and engineers

 

Public and private spending on the arts

Infant mortality

 

Equality of education for minorities

Racial and gender discrimination in hiring

 

Rates of accidental death at work

Incidence of poverty

 

Graduates from high school and college.

Degree of freedom guaranteed by law

 

Technical quality of health care

Availability of child care

 

 

Of course there were some areas of disappointment as well – but far fewer. In five of the seventy five areas we are doing about the same – controlling inflation and unemployment, student achievements in math and reading, and protecting workers from arbitrary discharge. Bok found outright failures – where we were in fact worse off – in less than a quarter of the areas he studied. These included: incidents of homicide and rape, success in solving crimes, rate of productivity increase, cost of health care, percent of children born out of wedlock, affordability for renters, voting rates, drug use, percent of income given to charities, workers with representation, and concentration of poverty in urban neighborhoods

Overall, however, the results of this study clearly show that Americans were much better off in 1990 than in 1960. Of course, a few things have changed in these areas since Bok’s study in 1990 – some for better and some for worse. For example, crime rates have gone down substantially, while schools have grown more racially segregated than before. But by and large, Bok’s main point remains: there has been improvement in most areas that Americans say they care about and much of the credit for these successes must go to government. As Bok concluded:

During the past thirty-five years, our society has made substantial progress in most of the fields surveyed. In almost all of these advances, government actions have played a prominent role, whether it be in cleaning up the environment, expanding personal freedom, extending health care to the poor and elderly, reducing poverty, or increasing opportunities for women and minorities. Federal policies have clearly had a hand in America’s greatest domestic achievements…11

To acknowledge the successes of government does not mean that we have to be satisfied with them. As I point out in another article, Why We Need More Government, American government could certainly do more to address problems like environmental pollution, rising health care costs, poverty, and so on. Despite our achievements, there is clearly room for improvement in many government programs.

But the basic point here is this: there is simply no credible support for the government bashers’ contention that most government activities are ineffective and that policies usually make things worse rather than better. Exactly the opposite is the case. Faced with this kind of evidence, to continue to believe that government is incompetent is not simply mistaken – it is so disconnected from the real world that it seems to border on the delusional.

  

 

Attacking Programs that Work

Conservatives are not only in denial about the impressive record of government policy successes, they have actually attacked many of the programs responsible for these achievements. As detailed in other articles on this website, anti-government forces have been systematically trying to tear down social programs and rollback regulations. Many of the successful programs mentioned earlier have already been undermined. When Republicans were in control of Congress during the administration of George W. Bush, they cut back spending for vital infrastructure facilities, lessened enforcement of clean air laws, cut spending for basic scientific research, weakened consumer protection regulations, and cut back on student financial aid.

Particularly troublesome were efforts to undermine Social Security, a successful program that is fully solvent for at least several more decades. Conservatives tried to institute a privatization plan that would have allowed some of the money that goes toward Social Security to be invested by individuals themselves in the stock and bond markets. They claimed this was necessary because the program was fiscally unstable in the long run. But their privatization plan would have done nothing to address that problem. Besides, many economists and government analysts have pointed out that the problems facing this program are decades in the future and can be fixed with quite modest reforms.12 More importantly, the Republican plan would have had several detrimental effects. The government would have had to borrow at least a trillion dollars to fund this scheme, greatly increasing public debt, which is already soaring. It also would have cost workers a great deal more in the commissions and fees they would have to pay to brokers and mutual fund companies – amounting to billions of dollars that would have been skimmed off the top of the retirement system. Finally, and most importantly, this privatization plan would have put workers' savings much more at risk in volatile financial markets. When the stock market plunged in 2008, many retirees who saw their IRAs melting away were very glad to still have the stable income coming from Social Security.

What the Right Really Hates: Successful Programs

Such vociferous attacks on successful government programs like Social Security reveal one of the dirty little secrets of anti-government conservatives and libertarians: they hate successful government programs even more than unsuccessful ones. Government programs that work contradict the conservatives’ contention that government is bad and always screws things up. Worse, successful programs may actually encourage people to view the government and their taxes in a more positive light. So it is the very success of a program like Social Security that invites attack by conservatives. As Paul Krugman has explained, government haters “are not sincerely concerned about the possibility that the system will someday fail; they’re disturbed by the system’s historic successes. For Social Security is a government program that works, a demonstration that a modest amount of taxing and spending can make people’s lives better and more secure. And that’s why the right wants to destroy it.”13

Some of this same perverted political logic was at work in the defeat of Clinton’s universal health plan in the early 1990s. Some conservatives opposed it because they thought it was too expensive and wouldn’t work. But others opposed it precisely because they were afraid it would work. As Grover Norquist has explained, many on the right feared that if the plan passed, it would be a big step down the road toward a more generous government on the European model. They were afraid this would generate much more public support of government and much less support for Republicans who wanted to reduce government. In Norquist’s words, the conservative opponents were motivated by “sheer terror of Clinton's health care plan. The goal was to stop the government seizure of the health care industry. Had the Democrats taken over health care, I think we would have become a social democracy and we could have never undone it. We wouldn't have won in '94 ...”14

More recently, many people were disturbed when Rush Limbaugh said in a much publicized speech, "I hope Obama fails."  This is simply another example of how the political right fears the success of government programs. If Obama's efforts to revive the economy succeed, and he is able to make health care more accessible and affordable, this would demonstrate that government programs can work. This realization might lead to public demands for even more active government – a conservative nightmare. So for Limbaugh it is better that the government fails, even if that means that public must suffer the consequences.

Clearly part of the conservative plan has been to not let government be too successful. They also hope that less successful government will undermine confidence in government and lead to increased support of government cuts. How this strategy works is easiest to see on the local level. Consider the situation in the small town I live in, which is probably typical of many areas in this country. There is a state-imposed restriction on the rate at which local property taxes can be raised – a favorite policy of tax haters and government bashers. But town expenses are rising higher than this restricted rate, which means that the town budget has had to be cut for many years in a row. Any fat has been cut out of the budget long ago, so the city government has been forced to fire some firefighters, decrease road maintenance, lay-off teachers, and so on. As budget cuts have led to decreased services and/or a lower quality of service, citizen complaints about local government have risen. This situation is very ironic: the myth of inefficient and ineffective government has contributed to tax cuts and caps, which in turn actually make government less able to do its job, which simply reinforces the idea that government is inept and inefficient.

Or consider what happened to FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Before the administration of George W. Bush, FEMA had amassed an admirable record in responding to emergencies and was considered to be a federal government success story. But under Bush, the agency was downsized because it was seen as an example of an oversized federal bureaucracy.15 An incompetent political crony was appointed as administrator. Its budget was cut and the agency was folded into the Department of Homeland Security, where its mission was re-oriented toward fighting acts of terrorism. Given this kind of mistreatment, it is hardly surprising that FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina was slow and incompetent. And of course this incompetence was then used by conservatives to impugn the abilities of federal bureaucracies.

The more conservatives have been able to cut taxes and programs, the more debilitated the public sector has become, and the more disillusioned the public has become about government performance. This is then seized on by government bashers to justify further cuts in taxes and government. It is a negative feedback loop that works to the advantage of those who want to hobble government. Interestingly, just the opposite seems to be the case in other advanced democracies, especially many of those in Europe. Hatred of government and taxes is much less common there, in part because governments are more expansive in the programs they offer their citizens. Since people can see more benefits coming from government – efficient and clean public transportation, free colleges, universal health care, child allowances for every family, substantial retirement benefits – they are much less resentful and more appreciative of government. So in these countries there is a positive feedback loop: the more government does for people, the more people support the government and are willing to pay higher taxes. This suggests that the problem in the U.S. is not that government does too much, but that it doesn’t do enough.

Resisting the Siren Song of Government Haters

The right-wing attack on useful government programs is one reason why it is important to set the record straight about how successful government has really been in this country. The image of government as an inherently incompetent institution has been one of the best rhetorical weapons in the war on public sector programs. Republicans have been relentless in taking advantage of this negative stereotype to mobilize public support for cutting taxes and programs. This ineptness theme has also been particularly useful in right-wing efforts to oppose any new policies that would expand the responsibilities of government. As Milton Esman has pointed out, the political right has figured out that “the most effective case they can muster to discredit and defeat a measure they oppose is to argue that it would increase the scope of the federal government and the role of bureaucrats. The merits of the proposal seem almost incidental.”16

All conservatives have to say is, “Do you want the government to now be in charge of (fill in the blank)?” and many people will say “No” because they know that the government will screw it up. This tactic was especially effective in the effort to defeat President Clinton’s attempt to enact universal health insurance in the 1990s. As one marketing expert concluded at the time, the Republicans essentially won the battle once they succeeded in defining the issue as whether we want a “government-run” health care system.17 Who would want incompetent government bureaucrats in charge of their health care?

In the 2010 battle over health care reform, Republicans and conservative Democrats trotted out this same argument and used it to defeat the effort to adopt a government-run, single-payer health plan. They even shot down the more modest proposal to have a "public option" to compete with private insurance – an approach highly favored in public polls. The end result: a watered-down bill that kept private business in charge of health care.

The fact is, government-run health care programs like Medicare are among the most efficient and effective health care programs in this country. But few people seem to know this.  Consider this. During the 2010 elections, Rep. Robert Inglis held a town meeting. He reported that one man warned him to “keep your government hands off my Medicare!” “I had to politely explain,” said Inglis, “that, 'Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government.’ But he wasn't having any of it.” This story says a lot about how brainwashed some Americans have become about government incompetence. Apparently, a program as useful and effective as Medicare could not possibly be a creature of government.

Fortunately, however, there are reasons to believe that people can see through this anti-government rhetoric and recognize that many government programs are actually very successful. For example, surveys show that if Americans pause to consider how public agencies actually do their job, and if they have some experience with those agencies, then they can get beyond their knee-jerk skepticism about government effectiveness. A poll done by the Pew Trust found that 82% of recipients of Social Security actually had a favorable view of that agency – even though only 44% expressed a favorable view of government. Similarly, 80% of airline passengers had a favorable view of the Federal Aviation Administration, while only 46% had a positive view of government.18 So while the negative myths of government hold considerable sway when we think of government in the abstract, when we look at specific programs and agencies, reality can break through and we can make a more accurate assessment of their worth and effectiveness. (For more on this point , see "What Americans Really Think about Government.")

Again, all of this is not to say that American government is perfect – that is hardly the case. It has had its fair share of ineffective policies and failed programs – Prohibition and the Vietnam War being two of the most spectacular historical examples of grand failures. But every kind of organization fails at times. Take the business community. Large corporations – like Circuit City and Linens 'n Things – can go bankrupt, and 80% of all new small businesses go under within five years. And yet few of us would leap to the conclusion that business people are an incompetent bunch of losers. We need to cut the same kind of slack for government.

Americans must stop being taken in by the siren song of government haters who insist that government makes a mess of everything it does. We need to acknowledge that government has repeatedly taken on difficult and complex problems and made substantial progress toward solving them, and in doing so it has bettered our lives in innumerable ways. Recognizing this impressive record of achievement is important if we are to build public support for a more active government – one that takes on the serious social, economic, and environmental problems we face as a society today.

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For more on how government quietly works to improve our daily lives, see: A Day in Your Life with Government.

 

To see why government programs are often one of the best ways that we can express caring and compassion toward our fellow human beings, go to: Doing Good Through Government.

 


1. Phillip K Howard, Death of Common Sense : How Law is Suffocating America (New York: Warner Books, 1996), p. 9.

2. Charles Murray, What It Means to Be a Libertarian (New York: Broadway Books, 1997) p. 147.

3. Limbaugh quoted in Al Franken, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot (New York: Dell Publishing, 1996), p. 10.

4. Jacob Weisberg, In Defense of Government (New York: Scribner, 1996), p. 32.

5. Derek Bok, The Trouble with Government (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002) p. 43.

6. Many of these government successes were adapted from Paul C. Light's, Government's Greatest Achievements: From Civil Rights to Homeland Security (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2002).

7. Quoted in Cass R. Sunstein, The Second Bill of Rights (New York: Basic Books, 2004) p. 15.

8. Susan Mayar and Christopher Jencks, “War On Poverty: No Apologies, Please” New York Times, November 9, 1995, op-ed page.

9. National Institute of General Medical Science, “Why Do Basic Research?” (http://www.nigms.nih.gov/news/science_ed/whydo.html#payoff), June 29, 2006

10. Derek Bok, The State of the Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

[11. Bok, State of the Nation, p. 405.

12. Paul Krugman, “Inventing a Crisis” New York Times, December 7, 2004, p. A31.

13. Ibid.

14. Rick Henderson and Steven Hayward, “Happy Warrior,” Reason Online, http://reason.com/9702/fe.int.norquist.shtml, Dec. 7, 2004.

15. Ibid.

16. Milton J. Esman, Government Works: Why Americans Need the Feds (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2000) p. 6.

17. Thomas Scarlett, "Killing Health Care Reform”, Campaigns & Elections, October/Nov. 1994, p. 6.

18. Cited in Charles T. Goodsell, The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic, 4th Edition (Washington, DC: Chatham House, 2003), p. 29.