Federal Government: A Half Century of Success Or 50 Years of Failures?

January 2, 2001 • Commentary

As we enter the 21st century there are lessons about government we can learn from the century we are leaving. A new Brookings Institution report— “Government’s Greatest Achievements of the Past Half Century”—maintains that “government deserves more credit than it receives” for its record of successes. But a look at this top 50 list shows three basic problems.

First, in some cases the claims are wrong. The #1 listed achievement is rebuilding Europe after WWII. But while both Germany and Britain received Marshall Fund aid, the former, which adopted free market policies, prospered, while the latter, which went socialist, declined. Market policies, not welfare, rebuilt Europe. (The same criticism applies to #31, increasing international economic development. Hong Kong is wealthy and Tanzania is destitute because of their respective policies.)

It is not credible to claim that the same government that imposed regulatory restrictions and price controls on the oil and gas industries (which led to rationing and long lines at the pump) and that restricts drilling has ensured an adequate energy supply (#32). Further, there is a correlation between increased federal spending on primary and secondary education and a decline in educational quality. Any improvements in this area (#35) cannot be credited to Washington.

In the cases of some achievements, the federal government played a supporting role at best. For example, the private sector had more to do with reducing diseases (#4) and promoting scientific and technological research (#13) than did federal programs.

Second, in some cases the federal government was the cause of major problems that it is given credit for supposedly “solving.” Should we applaud because the federal government is reducing a budget deficit it ran up (#9), making its own secretive practices more transparent (#38), improving its own inefficient performance (#41), reforming taxes that it imposed (#48), and devolving to the states responsibilities that it took from them in violation of the Ninth and Tenth amendments to the Constitution (#50)?

Government achievement of “increasing market competition” came from reducing its own regulations on telecommunications, utilities and financial services. And it only strengthened the nation’s airways system (#33) by scrapping many of its own airline regulations two decades ago; the federally owned and operated air traffic control system is the cause of as many delays today as is the weather.

Third, in some cases the adverse effects or the overall wisdom of supposed “achievement” are ignored. For example, perhaps the federal government helped strengthen the nation’s (read Interstate) highway system (#7). But in the process it undermined the railroads and today it promotes local transportation infrastructure that is rarely appropriate for local needs and often makes traffic worse. Washington “stabilizes” agricultural prices (#39) by keeping those prices high, paying farmers not to grow, passing out billions of taxpayers’ dollars, and running a program more modeled on the old Soviet Union than on Adam Smith.

If government protects allegedly endangered species (#27), it often does so by taking the use of private property without paying compensation as required by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Ditto for protecting the wilderness (#24).

Some listed achievements fail on all counts. For example, local governments, not Washington, as well as an aging population are responsible for most crime reduction (#36). The federal government’s war on drugs, like Prohibition in the 1920s, has been a major factor promoting crime. And the expanded police powers used to fight the drug war and the shredding of the 2nd Amendment are major assaults on individual liberties.

The errors in the Brookings’ report perhaps should come as no surprise. The list was made by polling people who, for the most part, are isolated from the real world and who often rely on government for their salaries: professors who are members of the American Historical Association and of the American Political Science Association, most who seem to understand little about economics.

Federal achievements (and laws) must be judged in their full context, taking account of their full effects. Using such a standard, the list of achievements would shrink and an alternative list of failures would more than outweigh it. After all, as Thomas Jefferson said, “That government is best which governs least.”

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