In this electoral season, the role of government in the United States has become an important issue. Surveys reveal that most Americans don’t like government, especially the federal government. (State and local governments seem more acceptable.) And yet they want the things that government provides, such as defense, law and order, safe food and drugs, clean air, pure water, education, flood relief, health care, etc.
Candidates, especially Republican ones, therefore have a hard time clarifying their own positions. Romney promises “strong leadership,” but leaves us in doubt about where he would take us or how he would get there. He shies away from his Massachusetts health care law mandating insurance for all, even though he seems to feel it was a good idea. One is reminded of the Tea Party supporter who said, “Don’t let big government take away my Medicare.”
For many years I taught about the role of government in different countries at Harvard Business School. Many of my students came from outside the United States. They were perplexed by the disdain, indeed disrespect, for government displayed by their American classmates. “It seems odd,” they said, “that you Americans loudly proclaim to the world the virtues of your political process, urging the rest of us to copy you, while at home you deplore the government which that process produces. And it’s not so much the policies that you decry as it is the institution itself.”
It was with Jimmy Carter in the 1970s that this ambivalence became particularly noticeable. He ran for president proclaiming himself an “outsider,” unfamiliar with and uncontaminated by the ways of Washington. We loved him for it. After about two years in office, however, he realized that he was indeed the captain of the ship and he had to know how to navigate. Ronald Reagan was more forthright. After trying to shut down the EPA, he said, "Government is not the solution to our problems; it is the problem.” And speaking of the institution he had been elected to lead, he said, “Government is like a stray pup. If you feed it when it comes to the back door, it just comes back for more.” He deregulated far and wide, leading to the collapse of the Savings and Loan industry in the late ‘80s and to subsequent government bailout. This was the first of many financial catastrophes, culminating in the meltdown of 2008, spawned by the anti-government climate.
The irony is that whatever the rhetoric, the size and cost of government have risen to record levels during the past 30 years, causing an unsustainable deficit. To reduce the deficit – which we must – requires making government more efficient and setting strict priorities. That means more and better planning. We can, however, only imagine the negative poll numbers that would flow from the question, "Do you want more government planning?" But without it, we get visionless flailing, guided by the heavy hand of special interests. With that comes more anti-government chatter, perplexing the foreigners and confusing the rest of us.