It has been 35 years since Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural speech as president — the one in which he said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Over that time, hostility toward government seems only to have grown, led by politicians and embraced by millions of Americans. In this most recent presidential campaign, Republican candidates outdid one another in calling to abolish the agencies they were running to lead, including the IRS, the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.
I find all this troubling. Not because I think those agencies — or the government as a whole — are faultless, but because I don’t see how a democratic society and market economy can function without an effective government. Capitalism and a representative democracy may need to function separately for this nation to be strong, prosperous and free, but they also need to work together.
In fact, I’d argue that limited government is more often part of the solution than it is a problem. It funds core functions — infrastructure, basic research, the court system, education, anti-crime efforts, national security — that allow private markets and the private sector as a whole to flourish. It sustains national parks, interstate highways, libraries, medical research, the air traffic control system and other services that make this a vibrant society.
It strives to protect Americans from hazardous food and drugs, unsafe workplaces, discriminatory employers and toxic polluters. It has played a key role in asserting fairness for minorities, women and the most vulnerable people in our society.
This is not to say that government does not overreach, or that it always performs as it should. On occasion, its leaders make poor and misguided decisions; its legislators, however well-intentioned, create wasteful and unneeded programs. And every time something like this happens, there are many of us waiting to bash government.
When it performs as it should, on the other hand, few people notice and even fewer of us stand up to defend it.
But let’s get real here. What’s the alternative? We’re not going to do away with government, give unfettered free rein to the market, and hope that someone decides to try to make a go of delivering core services. Nor are we going to go all out and establish government ownership of the means of production. Instead, we have to make the sometimes comfortable, sometimes uneasy co-existence of the market and the government work.
So it’s crucial for our political leaders to hit a pragmatic note and strive constantly to find the right balance between the two. To debate and then establish in clear terms where government should and should not be active. To test what works and what does not and then pursue the former and shut down the latter. To work hard to wring duplication out of the bureaucracy and rigorously pursue efficient, effective, and accountable government. To make sure that enforcement of the law is both tough and fair. And to recognize that their focus on policy needs to be balanced by a focus on effective management and implementation of programs.
The fact is, government has not changed much in size over the decades. For the last 50 years, federal net outlays have fluctuated between about 16 and 20 percent of GDP, with the occasional dip below or spike above. The total federal workforce stood at 5 million in 1964 and 4.2 million 50 years later. Whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat in office, government doesn’t seem to be going away.
Nor, really, do most people seem to want it to. As a politician, you can always get applause for quoting the old Thoreau line (which he in turn paraphrased), “That government is best which governs least.”
But start listing what government does that affects people’s everyday lives, and you’ll see members of that same audience nod their heads in agreement. It’s the balance between limited government and the private sector that it’s our job constantly to assess, debate and get right.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Send comments to [email protected].