Government Impotence and the Age of Dysfunction

I have been reading an increasing number of articles on how government is gridlocked, stuck, in the face of crises we seem unable to fix or even understand. I might add that one of my recent op-eds received some howling protests reiterating government’s incompetence, with examples ranging from individual breaches of ethics to political parties focusing on the irrelevant as war rages, oil spills, inequality deepens, carbon emissions grow, and global financial markets create anxiety everywhere.

Let’s agree that the trivialization of politics in Canada is part of the problem, that spending more time on Guergis-Jaffer than on climate change or the economy makes government seem out to lunch, pursuing its own business, not the nation’s business. But the President of the U.S. is clearly taking on a bold agenda and in that sense at least is not stuck, but it is there that we are witnessing the greatest anti-government backlash and the loudest condemnations of government.

These complex problems that defy easy remedy are like a gift to the newly energized anti-government libertarians and we seem too often to be buying what they are selling. Perhaps we do want government, or someone or something, to impose order on the chaos and fix things fast. And we are angry or despairing when they don’t. And maybe politicians and governments are too often tempted to over-promise what they can do whether to win favour or to reduce anxiety and fear. But this anti-governmentalism not only misses the point, it is dangerous.

What’s the big lesson from the oil that keeps on spilling? That we shouldn’t be putting our oceans at risk, particularly risks nobody knows how to manage. Government regulation with strong regulators is a big part of the solution and the absence of this – that is, of government – is a big part of the problem. A growing number of economists would say the same about the financial meltdown.

Healthy politics will often be about the appropriate role of government, what government can and should do, but it is refreshing to hear voices such as the always excellent and moderately conservative American columnist David Brooks try to bring balance to the discussion in the face of the dangerous and rising anti- government fervour or cynicism. Governments cannot try to take on too much. A bit of humility is always a good thing. We don’t want government in our bedrooms and we don’t want it fostering dependence. But surely we are grateful that family violence is no longer a private family matter and we understand that the poor have no autonomy without some help. And we know that the solutions on climate and the environment will not be found by relying solely on individual and local initiative.

So, let’s have the debates about roles and priorities and about how government can be made better, more responsive to citizens and more relevant to the future, but let’s not buy into the belief that government is irrelevant or impotent.

Comments
5 Responses to “Government Impotence and the Age of Dysfunction”
  1. joeblow says:

    If we ever could develop a consensus on the proper role of government, as opposed to a sleepwalking acceptance that government is dysfunctional and impotent, we would need to dispel the false picture that prioritizes the private sector over government, as if only the private sector is real and indispensable to our prosperity and society.

    During the Thatcher/Reagan years, government bashing found its expression in the British television program “Yes Minister”. In one episode, Jim Hacker, the Minister of Administration, tours a hospital that has an excellent human resource management system and happy unionized workers, but has no patients in the hospital beds, and nobody seems to notice. The intent behind the satire was to exploit the picture that fixing patients – i.e., results and performance, is primary and anything else, such as fair and effective human resource systems and happy and inclusive workers, is secondary. When generalized, the picture is that government programs and regulations are secondary and a dead weight on what is primary, namely, the private sector’s focus on the bottom line, results, performance and productivity.

    Notwithstanding the fact that the public service portrayed in “Yes Minister” hasn’t existed for decades, government-bashers continue to revel in similar anecdotes about government as dysfunctional, impotent and out of touch, while reinforcing the by now default position of the primacy of the private sector. But after the financial crisis, and now the Gulf oil crisis, I don’t see how this picture is sustainable. As Mr. Himelfarb points out, we see that unregulated, companies will cut corners that lead to environmental ruin, as seems to be the case in the Gulf oil spill. We see that unregulated, financial institutions can involve themselves in giant Ponzi schemes that lead to poverty, unemployment and incalculable hardship.

    Let’s hope that the polarization of positions and the noisy and frenzied assault on government that we are witnessing in the United States today is not part of a trend toward acceptance of government as dysfunctional and impotent but rather reflects a more fundamental grinding and shifting of tectonic plates over the rebalancing of the role of government following the financial crisis.

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