The Forgotten Achievements of Government

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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.



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?” (, 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,, 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.



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