Though much current American dissatisfaction is directed against “big government,” two things I read recently also remind us that government when it is big enough is quite efficient and can accomplish great things. It is not easy to discern whether it is just BIG government that Americans dislike, or whether we hold to a populist anti-government attitude, which in America is promoted by both political parties (see my Stuck in the Middle of American Politics). The following two unrelated quotes both dealing with the American government in WWII point out that it was precisely government (whether “big” or not) which brought about victory in World War II.
“The war revealed what might b e called ‘the dirty little secret’ of American capitalism. The myth of capitalism is that the free market is the most efficient economic system. But it is not. Governmentally sponsored and regulated production is far more efficient. It was the war, not the New Deal, that finally reversed the Great Depression. In wartime, the government can compel the collection of raw material, channel research, subsidize new production methods without taking time for them to prove profitable, redistribute labor pools, eliminate distracting competition by the incompetent. All these things happened during the military-industrial explosion of the 1940s … When it is important to get things done, and done fast, the government must be relied on.”
Margaret Graham, “Schumpeter’s Children” (Wilson Quarterly Spring 2010):
“That wisdom was confirmed by America’s experience in WWII. With Washington as maestro, the nation rapidly produced vast quantities of K rations, B-29 bombers, and everything in between, while researchers marshaled by the government from industry and the universities designed and built the atomic bomb and made rapid technological strides in fields such as radio and radar.
For American policymakers, the war offered a powerful example of what the economy could accomplish if directed and optimized by the federal government, and they believed they could most efficiently accomplish their goals through large corporate entities.”
Wills goes on to note:
Of course, stupid management can make government efficient in producing disaster, as in the Soviet destruction of agriculture. But in America, government is normally inefficient only if the market interferes with it, lobbyists distorting the outcome (for instance, in health policy).
Which is perhaps an interesting comment since the popular wisdom is that the market is efficient unless the government interferes with it, as in President Reagan’s comment, “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Despite his anti-government rhetoric, and his calls for the American government to live within its means, as far as I can tell, the government grew under his administration, and his economic policies did not create a a balanced budget, accepting rather national debt as normative (and ultimately tripling the national debt – see http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/budget.php); both his anti-government attitude and the acceptance of the national debt are two of his legacies, even if they are somehow contradictory. My suspicion is that what many Americans liked about Reagan was that he significantly cut taxes – it’s not small government that people care about, it is purely how “it” affects me personally. The attitude is very self-centered as is much of American individualistic thinking – I favor low taxes because that benefits me personally, and yet I want the government to be there when I need it (but I’m not so concerned when others need it, and resent it if it means I have to pay for something that is not personally benefitting me). In this thinking, we realize how foreign sounding are President Kennedy’s words: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” The modern version probably is “Ask not what purpose government serves for the country, ask what government is doing for me personally.”
One can note that in both the Katrina Hurrican natural disaster and the current Horizon Oil Rig collapse disaster, there was a need and a demand for massive government intervention, even from those who oppose big government, and many complained that “the government is not doing enough.” In both cases it appears that only the government was capable enough and efficient enough to respond to the human need created by the disasters (and this despite the many complaints about inefficiency, waste, slow response). No agency except the government had the resources and ability to respond to the many, varied needs created by the disasters.
I am not advocating for big government, but am advocating for us to have a real discussion about what has to change, what do we have to be prepared for, what needs to happen for smaller government to exist, and for us as a nation to be able to deal with natural and manmade disasters and catastrophes. For example, do we really believe that industry left to itself would and could deal with the Gulf Coast oil disaster, and all its implications, without being pushed by the government? (Could industry deal with the problems without the coast guard, navy, national weather services, etc?) Do we believe industry left to itself would respond to the needs of those who will be affected by the disaster without the government to advocate for the people? (Would industry be reporting the extent of the disaster or be prepared for all of its potential consequences without monitoring agencies to force safety measures, environmental tests,etc?)
Cutting the size of government does not immediately translate into tax savings, that is a different issue, especially when reducing the government may only bring it down to the size which our current taxes make affordable. Exactly a problem created by past policies is taxes have been reduced without cutting a proportionate amount of government spending. Now the time comes to reduce the government down to the size for which we are paying. Will voters accept that?