In thinking about how our government handles problems and policy, I’ve come to realize our government isn’t thinking big enough. This is made even more relevant this week as President Obama announced a reengineering of NASA’s space program. Obama shifted the focus from the traditional manned space shuttle travel to scientific development here on Earth and deep space exploration. This got me thinking about why the federal government is not doing more “strategic” planning or high-level planning in all areas of policy.
For the most part, the government is thinking too small, too personal and too individualized.
Our government has narrowed its focused down to the individual level to such a degree that the federal government is literally bogged down in people’s personal lives – sending checks, monitoring students’ test scores, and generally providing daily services. As a society, I think we allowed this to develop because it is understood to be what’s best for stability and our most vulnerable members. What we really did was shrink the government down so that it is no longer built to manage macroeconomics, nationwide industries, natural disasters, regional unemployment, climate control policy, national defense, regulate or develop long-range fiscal strategy, focus scientific research and anticipate crisis.
Big government shouldn’t mean providing more entitlement programs and becoming more closely connected to our private lives and bank accounts. Big government should mean the exact opposite – high-level government. BIG government. Instead of reaching out and “touching” as many citizens as possible, the federal government should be the parent company of social services, the “Board of Regents” of the educational system and the referee when it comes to social controversy.
You’ll often hear Republicans complain about “big government” and I suspect they mean width. GOPers fear government influence getting wider and wider into a variety of new industries and increasing power (which usually means increasing spending and taxes). Democrats, and liberal economists like Paul Krugman, see government as a tool used to solve sociological and economic problems. As a result, it is natural they would broaden the scope of government influence.
But I think everyone is focusing in the wrong direction. Government needs to get bigger, not wider.
Our entitlement programs have become really shortsighted. It’s like the old phrase, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Similarly, why can’t the government be in the business of teaching the people? Instead, why do we continue the expensive and short-term policy of giving out fish?
Despite what it sounds like, I didn’t start this post with any smaller government, lower taxes agenda. It just does not seem to make sense in a country this size with the diversity of industries, geography and culture to be trying to manage the daily lives of any portion of the population. I submit the country is too large and too diverse to continue to attempt personalized government on a federal level.
In an effort to make this clearer, let’s take a look at some examples:
Healthcare. Instead of President Obama’s $980 Billion healthcare reform, the Obama Administration could have taken a program like the one in Massachusetts, packaged it up and marketed it to the states. In this way, it’s not the federal government mandating anything, but acting as a solution facilitator and passing good ideas between the states. There are many areas that we allow states to manage individually – medical marijuana in CA, gay marriage in Vermont, and gun control in TX, just to name a few. If we become more comfortable with this approach, we can make a more efficient, cheaper and freer society. In 1932, it might have made more sense to treat the entire country exactly the same, but the truth is that the country is much more regionalized and diverse than the government can handle.
In this scenario, the government wouldn’t be in the personal mortgage business (Fannie Mae) but rather governing and regulating the entire finance and lending industries. I understand that it’s easier to guarantee home ownership by establishing government control all the way down to the individual level; however it significantly limits how much the government can manage simultaneously.
In an effort to combat social ills and protect our country’s most vulnerable, we’ve gone far afield from what the government is actually good at and is reasonably capable of doing. Should society’s problems and our country’s most vulnerable citizens be the priority? Of course. Using the federal government to mandate a standard or establish the available options to government agencies dealing with these problems means the standard will be too high for some, too low for others and more than likely mediocre for everyone else. This produces inefficient and less effective results.
Is it possible to rethink the federal government as a high-level manager across the country as a whole? The government is in the best position to focus on the issue mentioned earlier. By incentivizing and regulating, the government can get bigger and alleviate some of the practical and financial strain, which threatens to grind our current government to a halt.
Liberals can embrace the expansion of the government’s management and vision; conservatives can embrace an increased trust in the role of states.
Raising the bar of the federal government’s focus, attention and influence is a big step. A few years ago, I would have said it’s an impossible step. I would have said people reject change and would be unwilling to risk the stability of their attentive federal government. Today, considering the economic collapse of 2008, the rise of the Tea Partiers, and a growing concern about long-term strategy in America, I think it’s more likely than ever that we could change directions. But which direction are we headed?