Broken government or big government?

David Bieler Contributor
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Last month CNN aired the weeklong program “Broken Government,” which addressed whether our current system is broken, and if so, how to fix it. The unspoken assumption behind the series was that there are just a few bad cogs in the system, but if only we could repair and replace them, everything would be splendid.

It’s true; there are some aspects of government that can be improved. But for the most part, our government is functioning just like it always has. The system isn’t really broken; government is just too big. As economist Russ Roberts explains, “The crisis of government in America is that it does too many things badly instead of doing a few things well.”

Traditionally, the role of the U.S. government is fairly limited: the government builds roads, raises armies, polices the streets, and provides other basic functions that are difficult for citizens to do privately. Government also establishes the “rules of the game” for people and businesses to follow. Like a traffic light, these rules guide our actions, but ultimately leave us in control behind the wheel. Although traffic accidents still happen, there is no government agency or Congressional task force that can completely eliminate the risks of driving. We certainly don’t need a government bureaucrat sitting in the back seat telling us what to do.

Recently, however, promises by a number of politicians attempt to eliminate nearly all of the world’s alleged injustices by expanding the role of government. Public officials want to expand medical coverage while driving down costs, mitigate global climate change, create energy independence, stimulate the economy, fix the banking system, and reduce the deficit, just to name a few. Unfortunately, far too many voters have bought in to this hollow rhetoric.

Despite our disappointments, we should not be surprised that politicians exaggerate what they can accomplish. After all, boastful campaign promises are what get politicians elected into office in the first place. And if people don’t pay close enough attention, politicians can get away with a lot of broken promises. Only recently have more people noticed that the list of failures is growing dramatically. The solution, however, is not a renewed effort, more bi-partisanship, or another government agency. The only solution is a more realistic view of what governments actually do well.

Most people who work for the government do so with good intentions. They simply face different incentives than workers in the private sector. This is why, for example, FedEx and UPS continue to prosper, while the U.S. Postal Service depends upon government bailouts for its survival. They are not lazy or incapable. Yet, I have no doubt that they are less likely than FedEx employees to make tough business decisions when times get hard. Why should they? They have little incentive to do so.

When viewed in a realistic manner, governments are clearly only suited to excel at a fairly limited number of tasks. The range of these tasks are debatable, for example, that’s what is going on in healthcare. Fortunately, skepticism, debate, and stalled actions are not signs of brokenness, but an increasingly concerned and alert public. These debates will likely lead to better outcomes than blind faith in a particular public official’s latest bill.

Gordon Tullock, a former professor of law and economics, once said, “The City of New York operates a vast collection of apartment buildings, and it is dangerous to walk in Central Park after dark. These two facts are not unconnected. By attempting to do too much the city government is losing its power to carry out even its minimum responsibilities.”

This same lesson can be applied to our current predicament. Government isn’t perfect, but it’s also not broken beyond repair—it’s simply too big. The U.S. government does a lot of things, but it does most of them poorly. The only way to avoid more empty promises is to limit the size and scope of government and let the ingenuity of private citizens take care of the rest.

David Bieler is a master’s fellow in economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.