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.