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?
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.