The Forgotten Achievements of Government

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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.


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