Rethinking Government

To create a better nation, we must re-imagine and re-design American government. The debate about size is too vague to offer much guidance. The public and politicians should address instead the actual tasks that government performs, and refocus on what we specifically want government to do (and avoid).

Government touches our lives every day in a hundred ways. It looms large in every direction. It is ubiquitous.

At the same time, government is nearly invisible. It hides in plain sight. Continue reading ->

Government's pervasiveness was not always true. Only as America became more urban and industrial, and public attitudes changed, did cities and states—even the federal government—ramp up their activity. Even then, until 1933 government did little to provide economic security or regulate markets.

It took the Great Depression and New Deal to dramatically increase government’s role in the nation’s life. Reacting quickly to the catastrophe of devastated farms, mass unemployment, and the near-collapse of the banking system and stock market, President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal vastly expanded the reach, role, and resources of the federal government.

The New Deal created an alphabet soup of new federal programs within four policy clusters: (1) broad-based economic security programs to help all Americans, (2) means-tested welfare programs for the poor only, (3) new regulation of the market, and (4) deep intervention in the market. Over the next 80 years, federal and state governments added new programs within each cluster of policy to create the New Deal writ large.

The United States jumped into this vast expansion of government with speed and creativity. In many key areas, the endeavor succeeded...just as in other areas, there have been major failures. Continue reading ->

Sadly, for the last several decades, our thinking about government has been paralyzed. For at least 40 years, Americans have been debating whether government is inherently “good” or “bad.” Our disagreements have centered on government's size. The discussion has often grown bitter, and it has largely been fruitless. We wander in a fog of rhetoric and bromides.

The question Americans should instead be asking is: In a free society like ours, what exactly do we want government to do?

Americans generally agree, at an abstract level, that government has three broad purposes:

  1. Protecting and enhancing public safety, health, resources, and infrastructure;
  2. Providing economic security and equal opportunity; 
  3. Creating an effective market.

But comprehensive American thinking about the specific tasks that our government should complete is nowhere to be found.

The Constitution provides no practical guidance. It describes the powers that the federal government might exercise, but seldom directs the federal government how to act. Learn More ->

Americans' consensus about "limited government" is also of little practical help. We love “limited government” in concept, but we really want it to take strong action on many fronts. Learn More ->

Thus across the political spectrum there is little clear, comprehensive, consistent thinking about the specific functions, specific financing, and the specific form of government. We find it difficult to grapple with the three “D’s” of government.

  • First: What, exactly, should government do?
  • Second: How, exactly should it raise the dollars?
  • Third:  In what ways, exactly, should government be delivered?

But there is a pathway out of the fog.  The starting point is to re-imagine American government as a stage—an enduring, simple, inconspicuous, neutral stage—that creates a foundation, but does not direct the action. On top of that foundation, individuals and private organizations would freely write the scripts and freely choose their own parts in the nation’s social and economic drama. Continue reading ->

Government’s role, while large, would be strictly limited to:

  1.  Guaranteeing public safety and public health, preserving the nation's natural resources, and creating and maintaining the lattice of infrastructure;
  2.  Assuring employment, decent wages and earnings-based incomes, adequate disability and retirement incomes, excellent health insurance, and quality education; and
  3. Enabling the market to function, and then regulating it to prevent damage or undue risk to the environment, workers, consumers, and investors.

As government constructs the solid foundation, we can then eliminate the current slew of  "poverty-requiring" welfare programs, as well as abolish all subsidies that aim to steer the market towards particular types of consumption or investment.

This re-design of government requires a fundamental reworking of the New Deal. The four policy clusters that emerged in the original New Deal--and expanded over the 80-year course of the New Deal writ large--would be reduced to two: broad-based economic security and equal opportunity programs, and market regulation. Continue reading ->

The logic and details of this dramatic change in the New Deal "settlement" are spelled out in the sections on a new design of government, economic security, and an effective market. The details should not be allowed, however, to mask the dramatic impact that the proposed policy reforms will have on the American people. 

Once the changes proposed here are implemented, the American people will be far more economically secure, healthier, and better educated. They--and their families, the organizations they form, and the businesses they create--will fully control the direction and shape of the nation’s culture and economy.

America's unique experiment with freedom will accelerate once more.