How Much Can the Government Do?
(Photos by Robin Holland)
This week, the JOURNAL featured wide-ranging conversations about America’s economy and William F. Buckley, Jr.’s contribution to the conservative movement.
Both guests on the broadcast, liberal economist James K. Galbraith and conservative writer Richard Brookhiser, engaged a fundamental question that people have been debating for centuries and that cuts to the core of recent disputes about economic stimulus and health reform: how much is the government capable of doing?
Galbraith argued that past federal programs have been successful and that the U.S. government should focus on creating more programs to pursue broad social goals:
“There’s been a massive collapse, a collapse which is comparable in scale to 1930. The overall economy hasn’t come down nearly as much, and the reason for that is that we have the institutions that were created in the New Deal and the Great Society, institutions of the welfare state [and] social security... We need to set a strategic direction, as we did in the 1930s and 40s, when the strategic direction over 50 years was basically to create a middle class... When you’re focused on achieving a certain goal, you can eliminate poverty. You can deal with the environmental questions. You can, in fact, do this if you can sustain a course of policy for a 30 or 40 year period... The problem here is organizational. It’s a matter of will. It’s a matter of creating appropriate institutions that are in the public sector and incentives in the private sector to get certain jobs done.”
Brookhiser said, however, that the conservative movement became increasingly influential in the 1960s as more and more Americans became skeptical of the federal government’s ability to tackle complex problems:
“[During the 1960s] a post-Depression, post-war liberal consensus was finally beginning to come apart. World War II had been won, obviously, by an exertion of the government, and the Depression seemed to have been ended by the exertions of the government. There was a consensus that this was the way that we should address all our future problems, and that we could do it successfully by bringing the best thoughts and then the powers of the state to bear upon them. But, in the late 60s, for a lot of reasons – the war in Vietnam, racial troubles that the civil rights bills didn’t seem to be able to address – people all across the spectrum began having doubts, and many of them were on the right. That was really the moment the conservative criticisms of this consensus began to get traction.”
Recent polling indicates that an increasing majority of Americans believe that the government is doing too much. According to Gallup, 57% of respondents agreed with the statement “the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses,” the most in over a decade, while 51% said that “the federal government today has too much power.”
What do you think?