Fareed Zakaria’s new column is titled (at least on the Washington Post website) “Why Americans Hate Their Government” or (in the paper) “Why We Hate our Government.” But some of the points he makes might better be seen as reasons not to keep on expanding a government that has grown beyond its competence.
Washington is having one of its odd debates as to whether the Obama administration’s rollout of HealthCare.gov was worse than the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. But whatever the answer, if there is one, the real story is that both are examples of a major, and depressing, trend: the declining competence of the federal government. Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, has been saying for years that most Americans believe their government can no longer act effectively and that this erosion of competence, and hence confidence, is a profound problem.
“The federal service is suffering its greatest crisis since it was founded in the first moments of the republic,” scholar Paul Light writes in his book “A Government Ill Executed.”
Over the past decade, the federal government has had several major challenges: Iraq, Afghanistan, a new homeland security system, Katrina and Obamacare. In almost every case, its performance has been plagued with mismanagement, massive cost overruns and long delays.
Zakaria argues that this was not always the case: “In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, federal agencies were often lean, well managed and surprisingly effective.” Maybe so, depending on your metric. But of course in those decades the federal government had not yet undertaken cradle-to-grave responsibilities. Maybe the lesson is that if you want competent government, you should limit it to manageable tasks.
On the other hand,
If you want the federal government to tax (and borrow) and transfer $3.6 trillion a year, if you want it to build housing for the poor and give special benefits to Alaska Natives, if you want it to supply Americans with health care and school lunches and retirement security and local bike paths, then you have to accept that such programs come with incentive problems, politicization, corruption, and waste.
In that case, this is the business you have chosen.