Why We Need More, Not Less, Government

In the face of increasing threats to our wellbeing and the inability of the market or individual efforts to effectively address them, we need to expand public sector programs.

For decades, conservatives have been pushing for smaller government, and have consistently called for reduced social spending, less regulation, and more tax cuts. But not everyone agrees. When the financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008 and the economy began to melt down, suddenly there were calls for bigger and more active government. Many people wanted a massive federal stimulus plan to ward off an economic depression, and others demanded the widespread re-regulation of financial markets to prevent a recurrence of these problems.

On top of this, many Democrats have argued for increased government involvement in a wide variety of areas, ranging from education and energy development to infrastructure repair and health care reform. But is this broad expansion of the public sector really justified?

Whether we need more government in this country really depends on the answer to three other questions. First, is there room for improvement in government programs? Have we reached the limits of what government can do in most policy areas, or could expanding these current programs produce significant added benefits for the public? Second, are any of our current social and economic problems worsening? Are we facing new and serious threats to our wellbeing? If so, this would logically indicate the need for more government. And finally, can we rely on markets and individual effort to solve these current and emerging problems? If so, then we don’t need more government. But if markets and individual initiative are not up to the task, this bolsters the case for a more collective, governmental approach. All three of these questions are complex ones, but as this article will show, we can begin to get some definitive answers to all of them. These answers strongly indicate that we do need more government – not less – in the United States.

Room for Improvement

As impressive as the accomplishments of government are in the U.S., there is clearly room for it to play a much more constructive role in people’s lives. In fact, many Americans sense this already. One of the most common complaints about government is that it is not doing enough to address a whole raft of problems. Sure the air is cleaner than it was, but we still have major smog problems in many cities. Of course we have done much to reduce poverty among the elderly, but a high level of poverty among the general population still exists. And while energy efficiency has improved, we still have an economy that is dangerously dependent on oil and other fossil fuels. Some may be tempted to conclude from these situations that government simply can’t do anything more to help – that we have reached the limits of what government can do in these areas. But this is not the case. We know that government could actually do much more. How do we know this? Because governments in many other advanced democracies have already done much more to effectively address these problems.

In another article, “Government’s Forgotten Achievements,” I cited a study done by Derek Bok which showed that a myriad of government programs have in fact been successful in addressing many of our social, environmental, and economic problems. But this study also found that there is considerable room for improvement. Bok discovered this by comparing the accomplishments of the U.S. in important policy areas to the accomplishments of the government of other major democracies – primarily those in Western Europe. What Bok found in this comparative study was not comforting: “Over the past several decades, America has moved ahead more slowly than most other leading countries in most areas of activity that matter to a majority of the people.”1 Of the more than sixty areas examined, the efforts of the U.S. government were below average in two-thirds of the cases, and at or near the bottom of the list in more than half.

Among the areas where we have under-performed other democracies:

Growth of per-capita income.

Gender earnings gap.

Reducing pollution.

Income inequality.

Cost of health care system.

Coverage of health care system.

Life expectancy.

Access to affordable long-term health care.

Infant mortality.

Job-related illness or injury.

Effective job training.

Safeguards for laid-off workers.

Ability of workers to establish unions.

Number of families in poverty.

Severity of poverty.

Affordability of owning a house.

Affordable rental housing.

Crime rates.

Segregation by income and race in cities.

Student performance in math and science.

Availability of child care.

Child nutrition.

Children enrolled in pre-school.

Availability of parental leave.

 

The fact that we lag behind our democratic neighbors in so many policy areas demonstrates unequivocally that our government could accomplish even more than it has done already. There is a real possibility that increased government efforts could do much more to improve our lives in significant ways. The greater success of other democratic governments in addressing serious economic and social problems shows that it can be done and that we could be following their lead.

 

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