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Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn't Hate Government

Plus, Five Big Projects That Went Well and Five That Were Disasters

William D. Eggers and John O'Leary
January 13, 2010

When we tell our limited-government friends that we have written a book titled If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government, about how government can better accomplish what it sets out to do, the reaction is often horror.

“I don’t want to make government work better, I want it to go away" is the typical response. Government, in their view, is the enemy.

This way of thinking is deeply misguided, a troubling blind spot that keeps libertarians on the fringe of many policy debates. If you reflect only scorn for government, it’s hard to get anyone who hasn’t already drunk the Kool-Aid to take your opinions on the topic seriously.

This is not to disparage the argument that government is too large, for which the case is strong. But holding government in sneering contempt is a misinformed corruption of that sentiment.

Our Founding Fathers, fondly quoted by limited-government advocates, didn’t view government as evil, but as a flawed institution with some important jobs to do. They studied how government worked and they served in office, not because they viewed government with disdain, but because they knew the importance of good government.

[Article continues below Reason.tv interview with Eggers and O'Leary]

Small-government advocates should care deeply about improving government. Here are five reasons why:

1. Bad government leads to bigger, badder government. Today, only 23 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing. At first blush, this would seem to be an encouraging statistic for those opposed to “big government.” After all, the less citizens trust government, the less willing they should be to give it big new responsibilities, right?

Wrong.

An important recent academic study called “Regulation and Distrust” shows that, paradoxically, the worse government performs, the more citizens demand greater government intervention. The authors’ explanation for this curious finding is that in societies where people distrust large institutions—whether government or big business—the demand for more regulation and for more government is higher, even when government is incompetent or downright corrupt.

2. To shrink government, you need to love government.  Most liberals believe deeply in government. As a result, they sit on school boards, city councils, and regional planning boards. They become expert at navigating through the bureaucracy and know which bureaucratic levers to pull to make their policy vision reality.

Many conservatives and libertarians come from the world of business. They don’t particularly like government. They view it as merely a necessary evil. As a consequence, they rarely immerse themselves in the intricacies of governing, preferring to make their case from a safe distance.

Once in power,  they tend to have far more difficulty navigating the complex terrain of the public sector. The result? From Ronald Reagan’s Grace Commission to the 1995 government shutdown by a GOP Congress, most high-profile attempts to shrink government fail.

Until small-government types better master the nuts and bolts of the public sector—how to design policies that work in the real world and how to execute on large public undertakings—their initiatives to downsize government will continue to disappoint.

3. Market-based reforms are not self-executing.  Fans of limited government are quick to point out the shortcomings of “big government” policy initiatives. But market-oriented policy prescriptions will also fail if they aren’t well implemented. 

The deregulation of the airline and trucking industries were two of the biggest and best things done by government in the 1970s. Well-designed and well-executed, they demonstrated the benefits of choice and competition. Consumers saved billions. 

In the late 1990s, free-market think tanks were pushing the idea that competition could cut costs in the stodgy, monopolistic world of electricity. So what happened when California actually tried electricity deregulation? 

Within just a few years, the new law caused soaring prices, rolling blackouts, and the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. Consumers lost billions.

What went wrong? The short answer is that energy companies such as Enron exploited design flaws in the legislation to game the system. Competition could work in electricity, but California’s poorly designed “deregulation” was a disaster.

Without a keen appreciation of the process by which legislation and programs are designed and implemented, efforts to move from monopoly to markets carry a high risk of failure.

4. Government bashing alienates those you want to reach. According to many libertarians, politicians are corrupt, bureaucrats are lazy, and public unions are a collection of thugs. The whole enterprise of government is a moral cesspool filled with Randian villains scheming to drain every bit of life, cash, and liberty from the noble John Galts of the free market.

This view is so at odds with the daily experience of millions of Americans that libertarians are easily dismissed by the average citizen. The distorted worldview in which government performs no useful functions—ever—is silly.

Incessant government-bashing may make you feel good, but alienates most everybody who knows and loves a police officer, firefighter, teacher, social worker, anyone who has ever collected an unemployment check, and anyone who saw NASA put a man on the moon.

In the short term, a philosophy of “government never works” might sell to the base but it’s not an effective strategy for building a broad-based electoral coalition or actually governing. Voters won’t trust people who hate government with the keys to City Hall.

5. Nobody will care what you know until they know you care.  Many voters today may indeed want smaller government, but what they want most of all is competent government. In addition to pointing out the flaws of government, free-marketers also need to communicate a genuine interest in the effective performance of the important duties of government.

After all, what is it that gets you so worked up about the current state of affairs? It is the human potential squandered by a government that isn’t the best that it can be. The ultimate goal is the pursuit of happiness, and when a properly limited government does its job well, it fosters freedom, peace, and prosperity. That is a noble goal. Why not embrace it?

When Government Was Good: Five Big Projects That Went Swell

1. Democratic Reconstruction in Japan Post WWII. Gen. MacArthur's title "Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers" left no doubt who was in charge during his six-year stint. Worked through the locals to help forge a model democracy.

2. The Marshall Plan. Aid to rebuild Europe following WWII. This initially unpopular idea was dubbed "Operation Rathole" by its opponents. Truman took his time working this through Congress and making the case for public support. Executed by experienced business leaders, this operation closed up shop when the job was done.

3. The Apollo Moon Landings. A come-from-behind win in the space race. On time, on budget, and 40 years later still never repeated. A strong head of NASA, James Webb, and a start-up culture made this incredibly audacious effort reality.

4. 1996 Welfare Reform. Put time limits on welfare benefits and encouraged work rather than dependence. Based on a program in Wisconsin, a good example of building off the demonstrated success of our nation's laboratories of democracy—the states. Cut welfare rolls by more than 50 percent in many states.

5. Acid Rain Reduction. This emissions trading market approach to a serious environmental problem yielded a 40:1 benefit to cost ratio. After years of political gridlock, this bi-partisan effort relied on the input of economists to yield a solution both business and environmentalists could live with.

When Government Was Very Bad: Five Big Disasters

1. Hurricane Katrina. The failure of the Corps' to adequately prepare was less visible but just as disastrous as the Keystone Cops response.

2. Big Dig.  Boston's Central Artery Road and Tunnel project. Billions of dollars in cost overruns. Years in time overruns. Federal dollars just weren't spent like real dollars, and the oversight from Washington was too little too late.

3. The 1970s War on Inflation. Wage and price controls? Whip Inflation Now buttons? Are you kidding? When an idea is based on mistaken beliefs about the world, failure ensues.

4. NASA's Shuttle Tragedies. The Challenger and Columbia disasters were both eminently avoidable said two presidential commissions. A culture of top-down hierarchy contributed to these high-profile disasters.

5. Democratic Reconstruction in Iraq. No plan B and a dizzying rotation of leaders: Franks, Garner, Bremer, Rumsfeld, et al. Partially remedied by the surge, the initial three years of occupation created a lasting impression of incompetence.

William D. Eggers has written six books on government reform. John O’Leary is a research fellow at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School. Their new book is If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government (Harvard Business Press). This column first appeared at Reason.com.



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