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The Can't-Do Government


Tags Big GovernmentProduction Theory


On The Washington Post, John McQuaid has determined that the United States is now the can't-do nation. He starts by mentioning the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis and wonders whether there has "ever been a period in our history when so many American plans and projects have, literally or figuratively, collapsed? In both grand and humble endeavors, the United States can no longer be relied upon to succeed or even muddle through."

McQuaid then continues to list a number of examples that show that the "United States has become become the superpower that can't tie its own shoelaces."

  • Remaking the Middle East
  • Medical care for veterans
  • General foreign policy matters
  • Defense from terrorism
  • Managing natural disasters (Katrina in particular)
  • Health crisis (such as the avian flu)
  • Rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure
  • Intelligence

Does he fail to realize that these are all giant government programs? The can't-do attitude is symptomatic in politics and not in the market, where they have to do or die, quite literally. The state is not driven by the same incentives and since they can tax and confiscate, they lack the ability to economize and rationally allocate resources.

McQuaid, interesting enough, then claims that

In a sense, big government has failed. The bitter disputes over the Great Society-era programs fractured the nation's rough political consensus, and the purpose of government itself became a battleground. The ongoing political knife fights cumulatively damaged the government agencies that depend on some insulation from the fray — which is to say, most of them. In the case of the New Orleans levee system, for instance, pressures from state and local agencies and limited money from Congress pushed engineers to relax safety standards and err on the side of cheapness.

And finally, he blames some of the problems on outsourcing: "Outsourcing eliminates incentives to perform well and shields contractors from accountability."

And the incentive to perform well exists in government? Has it ever existed? And are politicians not shielded? Is McQuaid serious? The government financed the bridges in Minneapolis. Regardless of whether it was built by a "private company" (a questionable name since the funding is public) or directly by a state agency, it's still another government program. Moreover, politicians, central planners and bureaucrats are generally very well shielded from liability. Even the police has no legal right to protect us and therefore cannot be held guilty of not saving our lives and property.

McQuaid ends his awkward call for accountability not by suggesting that we dismantle that which doesn't work (oh, the horror that would be!), but instead proposes that we "assemble our national will, power, technical expertise and vision." In other words, more of the same. More socialism.

Manuel Lora is a multimedia producer at Cornell University.

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