We are locked in a seemingly permanent debate over the proper size and scope of government that I don’t expect to end anytime soon. After all, it’s been a feature of political life for as long as any of us can remember. But no matter how we view the role of government, there’s one thing most of us do agree on: whatever government does, it should do it well.
Recently, I read a compelling speech by a prominent corporate CEO who criticized the federal government for creating an environment of uncertainty and stifling the engines of market growth — and then went on to lay out plans for economic renewal that all involved the government: a revamped education policy, more investment in infrastructure and in basic research, changes to the tax code to reward innovation. His speech underscores a basic truth about American life: we can argue about the fine points of its reach, but the importance of government’s role in our lives is inescapable.
This does not mean that government is the answer to everything — far from it. Nor, however, does the anti-government rhetoric that so often marks our politics show much sign of being rooted in reality. When we want to build roads and bridges, create conditions under which businesses can thrive, or respond to natural disasters, we turn to government at some level. And we expect the people who run it to be good at what they do. None of us wants to live with a government that is incompetent in the exercise of its important functions.
Constructive criticism is always appropriate, but the anti-government language that so often gets bandied about creates distrust of the very institution we rely on to meet the challenges and solve the problems that confront us as a nation. I sometimes find myself wondering how far we can erode confidence in our officials and our government and still have a country that works.
My sense is that the public is demanding more from government, not in size, but in performance. Americans want government to work better for less, and the only way to achieve this is for government to become more effective and productive in dealing with the challenges before us.
— Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.