Blame Cynicism

William D. Eggers & John O’Leary wrote for Reason:

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.

So what? Even if this is true, how does this reconcile the thread title? Tyler Cowen to the rescue. Here he quotes himself from a NYT column:

Most relevant, perhaps, is Canada, which cut federal government spending by about 20 percent from 1992 to 1997. The Liberal Party, headed by Jean Chrétien as prime minister and Paul Martin as finance minister, led most of this shift. Prompted by the financial debacle in Mexico, Canadian leaders had the courage and the foresight to make those spending cuts before a fiscal crisis was upon them. In his book “In the Long Run We’re All Dead: The Canadian Turn to Fiscal Restraint,” Timothy Lewis describes Canada’s move from fiscal irresponsibility to a balanced budget — a history that helps explain why the country has managed the current global recession relatively well.

To be sure, the spending cuts meant fewer government services, most of all for health care, and big cuts in agricultural subsidies. But Canada remained a highly humane society, and American liberals continue to cite it as a beacon of progressive values.

Counterintuitively [sic], the relatively strong Canadian trust in government may have paved the way for government spending cuts, a pattern that also appears in Scandinavia. Citizens were told by their government leadership that such cuts were necessary and, to some extent, they trusted the messenger.

It’s less obvious that the United States can head down the same path, partly because many Americans are so cynical about policy makers. In many ways, this cynicism may be justified, but it is not always helpful, as it lowers trust and impedes useful social bargains.

Forces like the Tea Party movement argue for fiscal conservatism, though it isn’t obvious that they are creating the conditions for success. Over the last year, we have been treated to the spectacle of conservatives defending Medicare against proposed cuts, in large part to curry favor with voters and mobilize sentiment against the Democratic health care plan.

In other words, those who wish to see spending cuts are doing the dirty work for the liberals they accuse of spending too much. As I said before on this forum and on my blog, "On Spending: We’re Screwed":

In other words, the federal programs and departments the most people want to see cut are also the most negligible in cost with defense being the only exception (although the 22% is paltry). If we lived in a plebiscitary, we’d be completely screwed.

I’m all for reducing the deficit where it’s necessary however people are going to have to make some concessions: we either increase taxation (i.e. we make it harder to avoid paying taxes) and cut some spending where possible or we cut spending significantly despite public enragement due to those cuts.

The starve-the-beast mentality of the right isn’t helping matters: they do not intend to cut anything while they cut taxes and ignore what needs to be done on tax reform (although liberals are as culpable for sitting on their asses due to the bad press they’d garner for doing so).

The cynical mentality of Fox News, conservative blogs and opinion sites, and the Tea Partiers are actually working against exactly what they want to see happen. Distrust in government will lead to leadership fearful of taking drastic, important action. Can they be blamed, really? In a way, yes, but only if you ignore the absolute fact that elected leaders are also human beings who are both expected to stay in office to do their constituents’ (mostly high bidders/donors) work and keep the electorate complacent. That’s why, instead of taking action, you get leaders who bicker and fight among each other–placing the blame at the end of their pointing finger (left to right, right to left).

In other words, unless the people of this country grow up and realize they have as much responsibility in how messed up our government is as the people we choose to elect (doubly our fault!), government is always going to fail and be less effective than positively responsive.


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