Thursday, May 5, 2011

Where Are the Advocates for a Medium-Sized, Efficient Government?

These days, we hear a lot about the supposed struggle between "Big Government" and "Small Government". As so often happens in American politics, nearly everyone has migrated to two utterly-polarized extremes, ignoring the vast empty space in the middle. As odd as it seems, there are few partisans for the position which strikes me as obviously correct: we need a medium-sized, efficient government.

Let's start with the advocates for Big Government. They seem to be of the opinion that if you simply pile enough money onto a problem, you can solve it. This logic is inherently flawed, as any number of historical examples can verify. Simply increasing the amount of funding directed towards a certain, vaguely-described problem (i.e. drug use in rural communities) tends to result in cascading inefficiencies which, in turn, create bloated bureaucratic organizations. In addition, it often has unforseen side effects that actually make the problem worse, as we have seen with many programs of foreign aid to developing countries.

Earlier this year, the General Accounting Office released a long-anticipated report on inefficiency in the federal government. Reading it made one unsure whether to laugh or cry. To take a few examples, there are nearly fifty individual federal programs focused on job training, more than eighty programs devoted to monitoring the quality of teachers, and fifty-six programs that attempt to improve financial literacy. The GAO report found that fifteen separate federal agencies have programs focused on food safety, and seven separate agencies have programs focused on homelessness. On numerous occasions, the authors of the GAO report were unable to ascertain the actual purpose of specific federal programs, and they often found that programs lacked any reliable means of oversight or of determining whether they were actually meeting their goals.

This is simply ridiculous. This is not to say that the problems these programs attempt to address are not real and serious, because they are. But attempting to solve these problems by simply piling on more money and creating more federal programs is a recipe for disaster. Not only will it not work, but it is costing American taxpayers billions of dollars and making an already disastrous fiscal crisis even worse. Massive duplication of efforts simply creates an ever-increasing number of federal employees attempting to do the same thing, and this does no good for anyone.

But do the obvious failures of Big Government prove that the advocates of Small Government are necessarily correct? Should we, to paraphrase Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, shrink the federal government to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub?

Absolutely not. The ideological advocates of Small Government are as misguided as the ideological advocates of Big Government. Just as the advocates of Big Government are deluded in thinking that throwing endless amounts of money at social problems will somehow solve them, the libertarian advocates of Small Government are deluded in thinking that society can properly function in the near-total absence of government. It might have been able to do so in the agricultural world of Thomas Jefferson's day, but it certainly cannot in the infinitely more complex world of the early 21st Century.

To see the need for rational government intervention, consider the following anecdote. In December of 2003, within a week of one another, two equally-sized earthquakes struck on the opposite sides of the world. Each measured about 6.6 on the Richter scale. One struck in California, where it caused some property damage and killed two people. The other struck in Iran, where it completely destroyed the city of Bam and killed 25,000 people. California suffered far fewer casualties and property damage than Iran mostly because government building codes designed to protect buildings from earthquakes were in place in California and not in Iran.

If the GAO report illustrates the problems of too much government, 2010 saw several events which illustrated the dangers of too little government, among them the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia and especially the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In both cases, if more stringent government regulations had been in place and had those already in the books been properly observed, the disasters would have been avoided, lives would have been saved, and tremendous environmental damage would not have taken place.

If the Small Government advocates had their way, who would prevent credit card companies or health insurance companies from exploiting vulnerable citizens? Who would maintain the transportation infrastructure of the nation? Who would educate the children? Despite the dreams of the Small Government advocates, it is indisputable that there are certain things society requires which can only be provided by government.

It is a concession to common sense that ruiniously expensive government programs that contain massive duplication of efforts and are absurdly inefficient should be abolished. It is also a concession to common sense that reasonable government regulation and intervention are necessary in order for the economy to properly function and, at a certain level, for society to work.

As we listen to the partisans of Big Government and Small Government scream at each other, where are the advocates for a Medium-Sized, Efficient Government?


  1. Here's a comment from a guy I think you like.

    I think we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious.
    Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826, 3rd U.S. President

  2. That's actually a quote from Francis Bacon, who was talking about the aristocratic nobles who enriched themselves by obtaining sinecures at the Elizabethan court.