On government: A Jon Meacham essay

I was 11 years old on the day Reagan was sworn in as our 40th president, and I — a politically fascinated youngster — was taken to the inauguration by a long-suffering grandmother. Nearly three decades later, I can still remember Reagan saying these words: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Ronald Reagan was not wholly wrong. That line was, however, more memorable than accurate.  Article adjectives — check your “Strunk and White” — were the key. Government was not the solution, in fact, and government was a problem. Edited that way, the line would have been factually correct. We wouldn’t remember it, though.

Not that it’s being memorable settled anything. As Washington again debates the efficacy of regulation and the role of the state, we’re reminded that this is an argument that is, in St. Augustine’s phrase, ever ancient, ever new. For example, for Lyndon Johnson, the years of the Great Society offered, he once remarked, more hope than the world had seen since the birth of Christ. The backlash came quickly.

Listen to Jimmy Carter: “But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America. It is a crisis of confidence.”

Bill Clinton, governing in the world Reagan built, appeared to end the debate for all time: “The era of big government is over.”

But this American story is never over. And now President Obama has to decide where he stands. For him, ideological categories are of little use; once the Bush administration essentially nationalized the banks in the fall of 2008, it made it difficult to see exactly what public and private sector really mean anymore.

Cynically but accurately put, Americans oppose public intervention or regulation if it helps others, but favor it if it helps them — take social security, disaster relief, public works projects, for example.

It would be wonderful if the public sector were always great, or always terrible; or if the private sector were always great, or always terrible. Alas, reality is more complicated than comforting caricatures. Governments fail, and corporations fail. Look no farther than the Gulf of Mexico or Wall Street for evidence of the culpability and responsibility of both entities for an unfolding and spreading disaster.

History tells us that America does best when the private sector is energetic and entrepreneurial and the government is attentive and engaged. Who among us, really, would, looking back, wish to edit out either sphere at the entire expense of the other?

 

Comments

  • clajr

    Well, no one, obviously. This reeks of Obama-style “why can’t we all just get along?” The devil is where it has always been, in the details.

  • James Mcgrane

    So once again what we have now is private affluence and public squalor. Thanks tea baggers!

  • braddockbrat

    I believe the legacy of President Reagan has been greatly overstated. The deficits began in his era, as did the ending of great research and the funding for it.
    The population today has more communication capabilities than ever before. But how worthwhile is the truth in what they are hearing. How many interviewers can pinpoint a lie when they get an answer to a question they have asked, and challenge the guest immediately so the public would hear the truth?
    With the current representation, by the party out of power, lying constantly without being challenged, the message often repeated, gains acceptance as the truth.

    Your statement “History tells us that America does best when the private sector is energetic and entrepreneurial and the government is attentive and engaged” assumes that our government is working properly. At this time in our history, with a party of “No”, regardless of the matter up for vote and who will benefit, our government is not working properly.

  • jan

    One little problem. The public sector (government) and the private sector (big business and Wall Street) are busy taking care of each other and leaving John Q Public completely out of the equation. We’re in trouble, Mr. Meacham.

    Unemployment is still rising in spite of the “new” accounting where we drop people off unemployment rolls after a certain amount of time has passed. We’ve been in this crisis for several years which just happens to coincide with sending massive amounts of money to Iraq and Afghanistan for a war that is a total waste of time and treasure; especially when we need to be spending it rebuilding this country.

    One last thought, Mr. Meacham. After 8 years of Reagan trickle down economics, 4 years of Bush I trickle down economics interrupted by Clinton’s 8 years that ended with a surplus, and another 8 years of Bush II’s trickle down), if trickle down economics was a viable economic theory, we should have been in fine shape by now. The fact is we are not.

    The public and the private sector aren’t being edited out. We are.

  • Philgorp

    i would like to remind mr meacham that congress has been controled by pelosi and the democrats since 2006. and, ‘congress’ writes and passes legislation. the acting president can only veto or sign it. the bank bailout was a product of the pelosi led congess. that makes this statement at best false. but more likely intentionaly misleading. (“; once the Bush administration essentially nationalized the banks in the fall of 2008,”)

  • mc

    From what Reagan said ‘Government was not the solution, in fact, and government was a problem’
    Jimmy Carter said that differently: “But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America. It is a crisis of confidence.
    Both of them meant well and were correct in saying that you cannot expect the government to solve all your problems.

    That is why we are suffering today for what we failed to do in the past, starting from the economy to the education and employment.

    That is not the American way. It might work initially, just to give a momentum, like a plane take off
    Once the plane takes off, it should fly and move forward. So the government should function like a run way, helping the pilots to land the planes carefully and take off swiftly. That is what FDR did.
    He started the program and let the people manage it. That is how the programs such as RailRoad Projects, Social Security, etc… developed in those days.

    That is the vision. That is what we need. That’s what we have forgotten.