Saturday, December 08, 2007

What Does Government Do Best?

What does government do best? Now, that's a loaded question, because most of us feel that government is often cumbersome and unresponsive. We individuals have very little influence on what government at any level really does. We simply continue to elect and re-elect public officials who, mostly, look at who elected them and try to perform the actions demanded by that group. And, we are often subjected to unelected bureaucrats who prefer their regulations to common sense.

But all in all, the results of the government process are not too bad. Our country is generally safe, the infrastructure works almost all the time, and we are pretty much free to say and do anything that doesn't inflict real harm on someone else. But, I think that what the government does best is a problem.

What government does best is say "yes" to its own perceived needs. Got a big constituency in the "red" states? A bloated farm bill will keep their allegiance. Got a military whose mission is grandiose, even when no other country can come close to matching us? Fund all the toys that the best military designers can conceive, whether they are "needed" or not. Got an island in Alaska that a few people can't get to conveniently? Build a bridge to nowhere. The biggest problem of government is one of resource allocation. It tries to satisfy everyone, and it taxes people to the maximum that they will accept. Any normal organization could never survive if it lived by this principle, but government is a different animal entirely.

A much smarter approach would be for the government to rank the country's needs in priority order, identify and fund an appropriate level of resources to each need in descending order, and stop funding when the tax revenue was exhausted. This would require quite an effort, since the U.S. government is the largest organization the world, by far. But it would be a worthy effort. Over time, our government has become bloated and inefficient, wasting a significant portion of its resources in "grandfathered" programs that should have been killed off years ago. The "sugar subsidy" is a prime example - a blatant slap at the free market economics that the current administration reveres publically but forgets when it comes to bankrolling its cronies.

Will government ever be run like a family, a business, a small town, or even a well-managed corporation? Probably not possible...but perhaps it would be wise for us to elect a hard-nosed president who could put a red pencil to the federal budget for a term or two. The country would likely be much better off when the carnage was over.


Ron Davison said...

Great question. Should be at the heart of any policy proposals, really.

And another variant on this? How could government do its job better? Coming into office convinced that government is a problem, it's easy for executives to simply let accept unacceptable levels of quality.

Dave said...

A variant: A constitutional sunset amendment. "All legislation enacted which authorizes spending by the government shall have no force or effect beyond one year from the date of its enactment."