Success and Failure

American government is neither a success nor a failure. It is both.

Altogether, government in the United States performs at least 26 major functions that—regardless of how government is restructured—most Americans will want to keep in place.

  • Eleven protect and enhance public safety, health, resources, and infrastructure (See top sidebar)
  • Six create economic security, as well as equal opportunity in the areas of health and education. (See middle sidebar )
  • Nine enable markets to work effectively. (See bottom sidebar)

In carrying out these functions, American government is frequently successful.

Sometimes government’s success is total. Almost everyone loves the local fire department, the state university, and the National Park Service.

Sometimes, government succeeds in part and fails in part. We are happy to have local streets, but don't like their potholes. We venerate Medicare, but wish it cost less.

Government may even succeed a little when it largely fails.

For further discussion of American government's successes: Continue reading ->

Yet just as it would be as foolish to deny government's widespread success, it would be equally naive to deny its extensive failures.

Because government has failed to act, or acted mistakenly, the United States has:

  • high levels of violence;
  • daunting public health problems;
  • a deteriorating infrastructure;
  • widespread unemployment and poverty;
  • tens of millions of individuals with no health insurance;
  • tens of millions of children who finish school without a real education;
  • appalling levels of racial disparity and racial injustice;
  • gross inequalities of income and wealth;
  • still-inadequate protections for the environment, workers, consumers, and investors; and
  • a sub-performing market, hamstrung by subsidies that undermine its efficiency and subvert its capacity to maximize the nation's wealth.

For further discussion of American government's failures: Continue reading ->

None of these failings is inevitable. While some can be explained by America's history, none is so deeply rooted in America's past or culture that government must be paralyzed in adopting remedial laws.

America falls short, in short, because government--especially at the federal level--adopted mistaken policies when it could have adopted, and can now still enact, the right policies.

The New Deal serves as the starting point for understanding both American government's successes and its failures. The original New Deal, from 1933 through 1937, made a great many sound decisions about the functions, financing, and form of government. The New Deal's inheritors added many needed and sensible programs.

But the New Deal and its aftermath--here referred to as the New Deal writ large--also erred. It failed to act, where bold action was necessary. It took the wrong action. It also interfered when inaction was preferable.

Appreciating the many wise decisions that FDR and the New Dealers made—and also acknowledging the sound choices made over the next 80 years in the New Deal writ large—is the launching pad for simultaneously recognizing the policy choices that American government has left out, messed up, or mistakenly imposed. In short: Grasping what the New Deal did right is essential to fixing what it got wrong, thus putting government in its proper place.

For a more in-depth "revisiting" of the New Deal: Turn to ->