Belief or Disbelief in Big Government

Yesterday I noted an exchange between Will Wilkinson and Mathew Yglesias after Wilkinson, in a post which is uncharacteristic of him, seemed to descend into repeating the right wing stereotype of liberal beliefs. Hilzoy later posted her own objections to Wilkinson’s post. The section which  seemed the most offensive was:

Here’s one way to understand the “going Galt” dramatics. Obama is causing a lot of Rand fans to completely flip their lids in part because Obama and his devotees are Bizarro World Randian romantics in the grip of an adolescent faith in the generative powers of the state.

Blogging (as with other forms of debate) can lead people to sometimes take a harder line than they intend. Will Wilkinson has backed off from this writing, “I agree. This isn’t fair. I don’t mean that all liberals or Obama supporters are statist romantics, just that lots of them are.”

Fair enough, except I would note that many libertarians are also romantics who believe that the invisible hand of the free market can fix any problem. Many, but not all, shake off these romantic views when going from adolescence to dealing with the real world.

Wilkinson not surprisingly does object to some of Obama’s views on using government and cites this portion from his recent speech before Congress:

Thanks to our recovery plan, we will double this nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years. We’ve also made the largest investment in basic research funding in American history — an investment that will spur not only new discoveries in energy, but breakthroughs in medicine and science and technology.

Wilkinson responds to this:

The largest investment in American history that will spur “new discoveries” and “breakthroughs”!

Why didn’t we think of this before? I know, I know. We did. Bush promised us hydrogen powered cars by yesterday and something crazy about switchgrass, which just goes to show that an adolescent faith in the generative powers of the state is not uncommon among presidents.

In debates of this nature both extremes are wrong. Those who believe government is always the solution, and especially those who discount the important actions by the private sector are wrong. On the other extreme, those who argue that government is always the problem and never the solution are also wrong. Not even Ronald Reagan, whose famous statement in his 1981 inaugural address on this topic is often taken out of context, held this extreme view.

Using George Bush as an example of government failure is hardly a convincing argument. Besides Wilkinson’s examples, Bush also spoke of taking us to mars and got us involved in Iraq. Ultimately George Bush proved to be one of the most incompetent presidents in our history and his failures do not mean that other presidents cannot accomplish more.

Government is neither always the problem or always the solution, but government has accomplished tremendous projects. While George Bush only had empty talk about going to mars, John F. Kennedy was successful in starting us on the course of going to the moon. The interstate highway system, which was essential to our mobile society (ultimately for better or worse) was built by the government under Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower was also involved in a previous big government effort under Franklin Roosevelt to eliminate fascism in Europe. That effort included a government research program to split the atom.

Earlier government actions such as child labor laws and establishing public education were greatly responsible for creation of our middle class society. While some tweaks are needed at present, the Medicare program has provided health care to the elderly and disabled, who our private system of employer-based health coverage is unable to handle, for over forty years.

There have also been many government failures, including both proposed goals which were never accomplished and enacted programs which have turned into disasters. As with any other type of human action, there are both successes and failures when it comes to government.

Many things are best done by the private sector, but other tasks require some government involvement. We are not likely to either achieve energy independence or turn to renewable energy sources if this is left to private industry alone. There are necessary changes in health care which require  involvement by government, with medical organizations now being among the strongest promoters of some government programs. (Wilkinson also  notes in another post how doctors, among other white collar professionals, are increasingly supporting Democrats as opposed to Republicans.)

Just as government was necessary to provide the infrastructure for business to succeed in the twentieth century, further government action is needed to provide the infrastructure needed for a twenty-first century economy. Ideologues of the right (and I’m not speaking of Wilkinson here) have been resorting to knee-jerk cries of socialism in response to any government action, ignoring the strong influence of Chicago school economists on Obama’s thought. The goal of Obama and many liberals who backed him is not bigger government, even if willing to accept this when needed, but to create an atmosphere where the private sector can be more successful.

While George Bush’s term can only be described as a steady stream of failures, the record is more mixed for other presidents. Most have had both successes and failures, and this is likely to be the case with Obama. I’m sure that when historians look back at the Obama years they will see both successes of government action, some failures, and some matters which were hopeful talk which never went anywhere.

The real question here is what works. What one believes is not the issue. As I discussed recently, the universe is not here to please us. The most pragmatic response to specific situations will not always coincide with one’s ideological beliefs or what we wish to be true.

Many liberals back “big government” not as the the end goal but as a means to solve certain problems. Even Wilkinson has previously noted the important difference between big government and limited government. Government policy needs to be determined by what really works, not by religious adherence to certain economic views regardless of the evidence. While some conservatives have been willing to stray from dogma when necessary, others hold a quasi-religious adherence to their economic beliefs. Those who believe every problem is best fixed by the teachings of any set of ideological beliefs, regardless of whether from the left or right, are often going to be wrong.

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