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

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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 isrebuilding Europe after WWII. But while both Germany and Britain receivedMarshall Fund aid, the former, which adopted free market policies,prospered, while the latter, which went socialist, declined. Marketpolicies, not welfare, rebuilt Europe. (The same criticism applies to #31,increasing international economic development. Hong Kong is wealthy andTanzania is destitute because of their respective policies.)

It is not credible to claim that the same government that imposed regulatoryrestrictions and price controls on the oil and gas industries (which led torationing and long lines at the pump) and that restricts drilling hasensured an adequate energy supply (#32). Further, there is a correlationbetween increased federal spending on primary and secondary education and adecline in educational quality. Any improvements in this area (#35) cannotbe credited to Washington.

In the cases of some achievements, the federal government played asupporting role at best. For example, the private sector had more to do withreducing 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 problemsthat it is given credit for supposedly "solving." Should we applaud becausethe federal government is reducing a budget deficit it ran up (#9), makingits own secretive practices more transparent (#38), improving its owninefficient performance (#41), reforming taxes that it imposed (#48), anddevolving to the states responsibilities that it took from them in violationof the Ninth and Tenth amendments to the Constitution (#50)?

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

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

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

Some listed achievements fail on all counts. For example, local governments,not Washington, as well as an aging population are responsible for mostcrime reduction (#36). The federal government’s war on drugs, likeProhibition in the 1920s, has been a major factor promoting crime. And theexpanded police powers used to fight the drug war and the shredding of the2nd Amendment are major assaults on individual liberties.

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

Federal achievements (and laws) must be judged in their full context, takingaccount of their full effects. Using such a standard, the list ofachievements would shrink and an alternative list of failures would morethan outweigh it. After all, as Thomas Jefferson said, "That government isbest which governs least."

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.