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What Government Can Do

by Miriam Axel-Lute on August 16, 2012


“Government can’t do anything right.”

It’s inevitable that Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan for VP is going to raise all sorts of conversation about Ayn Rand and libertarianism. It is, of course, as many people have pointed out, kind of absurd that Romney and Ryan are getting away with claiming her mantle, given how much the controlling paternalism and militarism of today’s Republicans would dismay their atheist, social-libertarian supposed hero. Not to mention that their economic policies (massive bank bailouts, huge oil subsidies) are anything but libertarian as well.

While the obtuseness of those who accept the idea that this Republican Party is libertarian bothers me, it bothers me even more when I hear supposed progressives accepting this idea that “government” is somehow inherently bad at whatever it does, especially compared to private enterprise. And I do hear it, all the time. Sometimes inserted right into a conversation that has focused for 30 minutes on the complete and utter incompetence of a large corporation.

Let me not beat around the bush about this: The idea that government can’t do anything right is as absurd and easily disproved a notion as “people are all evil.”

We can have a great discussion about the proper roles of government and which functions are best served by which sectors. We can all find plenty of examples of government screwing things up royally and persistently. I have a strong social libertarian streak myself, and an appreciation for the power of markets to do certain things well.

But government—in its myriad forms and levels—has done innumerable things well, things that no business could hope to pull off, and with a far more challenging set of parameters, including constantly shifting leadership, a requirement to attempt to serve all its constituents, and goals beyond profit motive.

For a good example, read “How I Lost My Fear of Universal Health Care,” by a former die-hard, anti-abortion Republican who moved to Canada and experienced their health care system firsthand. Is it perfect? No. Can every critique of it be matched by an equal or worse account of how it works here in our mess of profit-driven health insurance companies and constantly underfunded government stopgaps? Pretty much, yes.

The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have made untold differences in the health of our children and our environment. The postal system, garbage collection, elections, fire protection, street lights, the military, food safety inspection, Social Security (lifting our seniors out of poverty with astounding success), the court system—the things we take for granted that are publicly achieved are legion. As the Doonesbury cartoon storyline this week takes on, for-profit colleges are a joke compared to public university systems or nonprofit private schools.

Though it had negative unintended consequences, when we set out to build an interstate system, we did it spectacularly. Other governments do equally well with train service. Amtrak’s issues (which as I’ve written before, are far smaller compared to the horrors of our air-travel system than most would have you believe) are not a result of it being run by a government body. They are a matter of how much priority that government body is given.

And in fact I think that’s maybe one part of the difference. In a democracy at least, the government is, for better or worse, us. It is our attempt to come together and operate collectively so that we have a society that includes things we can’t make happen by acting individually. It’s a difficult, unwieldy beast to manage, and without concerted effort it replicates all the power imbalances and biases and conflicts that exist among us already. But we nonetheless all have at least a theoretically role in it that is more pivotal than that of “customer.”

We all love to tell a good yarn about getting lost in a miserable, asinine bureaucracy. It could equally well be our cell phone company, mortgage lender, health insurance company or the IRS or local building codes department. But when it’s a public agency, underneath it all, is there a little feeling of responsibility? Is there a different tone to our sense of “why do I take this?” Is that why we’re so quick to write it off as a structural failing—only what happens in government? Do we want to “drown government in a bathtub” because it will keep us from feeling like we really ought to be fixing it?

It’s always been a warning sign to me when a debate retreats to pronouncements about “human nature.” Perhaps also we should be suspicious of anything that retreats to “government nature.” Let’s make our decisions instead based on results and values—not a demonstrably false soundbite.