When it comes to conversations about government spending, two subjects tend to get conflated. The first is an ideological debate about whether or not the government is in general any good at doing things. The second regards the actual effectiveness of specific things the government does. And the second conversation is far more concrete, productive, and important, which is why it drives me crazy when the first one prevents people from engaging the second. Ron Haskins's new book is pretty wonky, but the articles he's written to promote it are quite readable.
role of government
In politics, competence sometimes serves as a rhetorical proxy for intent. Politicians like to talk about how terrific they/their ideas are. They aren’t always as gabby about what they/those ideas aim to accomplish. Example: privatization. Some conservatives insist that private enterprise is simply more efficient--more competent--than the government. So why not let the private sector take over certain public functions? But even if we concede that business is categorically more efficient than government, there remains the question of what it's doing so efficiently.
A recent episode of PBS’s American Experience explored how the massive number of deaths in the Civil War sent the nation into shock. The catastrophe—750,000 dead—was equivalent to the U.S. suffering 7 million deaths today. Besides evoking this ghastly experience, Ric Burns’s film Death and the Civil War (reviewed here in the New York Times), which is based on Drew Gilpin’s book The Republic of Suffering, offers a fascinating perspective on current political debates over the size and scope of the federal government.
Public and private efforts to meet human need aren't squared off in a zero-sum game. And there's more than enough work to go around.
E. J. Dionne—probably my favorite big-daily columnist—thinks liberals need to make a direct, full-throated defense of government: If progressives do not speak out plainly on behalf of government, they will be disadvantaged throughout the election-year debate. Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall election owed to many factors, including his overwhelming financial edge. But he was also helped by the continuing power of the conservative anti-government idea in our discourse. An energetic argument on one side will be defeated only by an energetic argument on the other. Hmm. I share Dionne's frustration with the success of anti-government conservatism in recent years, as well as the positive view he goes on to present of government's singular role in stimulating the economy and creating jobs (the main policy focus of his column). But more generally, I'm not convinced that the answer is to match anti-government attacks with equally fierce pro-government rebuttals.
If my pastor got up some Sunday and said, "I am not a pastor. I'm just a regular person," I'd respond like this: "Well, we hired you to be a pastor, and if you have a problem with it you should find another line of work."
In my state of South Carolina, we have a long history of not wanting anybody to tell us what to do with our land, our possessions, or our money. This has created a sense of fierce independence, as history bears out.