Government Done Right

I found this interesting, from reason magazine: Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn’t Hate Government: Plus, Five Big Projects That Went Well and Five That Were Disasters.

You can read their reasons. Here are their, from a libertarian POV, list of Five Big Projects That Went Well:

1. Democratic Reconstruction in Japan Post WWII…
2. The Marshall Plan…
3. The Apollo Moon Landings…
4. 1996 Welfare Reform…
5. Acid Rain Reduction….

I’m not sure if I’d include all those in my top five; I’d at least give a nod towards the acts that created the mid-century middle class boom. Leaving out the big ones of Social Security, Medicare, and the Civil Rights Act, I would definitely add the following to Big Projects That The Government Has Gotten Right:

1) The GI Bill. Instead of creating a class of soldiers who were pensioners, the pensions were converted to educational investments and investments in homes. This is how broad-based prosperity gets made.

2) Land Grant Universities. A wise and timely investment from the beginning of the 20th century, scaled with the GI Bill. Kicked education way in front of technology. Way too much time is spent focusing on the top part of the educational distribution; not enough time is spent looking at the workhorses that the Land Grant Universities do, especially now as they are slowly being bleed out and repurposed as quasi-private institutions.

3) FDIC, New Deal Banking Regulation. From the mid 1930s to the 1970s, virtually no bank runs, especially no bank runs as the result of liquidity problems. A stable (dare I say boring) banking system. What was that like?

What would be on your list?

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14 Responses to Government Done Right

  1. RPF says:

    Land Grant Universities certainly were a good public investment, but I think you’ve got the time frame wrong. Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, not “the beginning of the 20th century.”

  2. Tom Hickey says:

    National parks and monuments. See the fantastic Ken Burns PBS series on this, which shows just how difficult this was to achieve in the face of intense private opposition. While it wasn’t a material factor recently, it has been an ongoing project that since it’s inception has created both a higher quality of life and more economic prosperity in many ways, in addition to preserving our natural grandeur and national heritage. The parks still need and deserve our support.

  3. Really I think a very important point is that the vast majority of the public is very in favor of big government, and paying for it, especially the rich paying more. They are willing to pay higher taxes for better schools, universities, basic scientific and medical research, roads, rail, alternative energy, sidewalks for the kids, parks and recreation, other infrastructure, public health and public safety, a strong social safety net for those who are responsible but have misfortune, etc.

    But many object nonetheless because over the last generation the Republican propaganda machine has convinced them that the government spends very little of their tax money on those things and just wastes most of the money on wasteful things, on giant handouts to the able bodied lazy, giant salaries, Soviet bearcats, etc. This is very false, of course. There is some waste and excess in any large organization, public or private, but it’s not that much worse in government than in private business (and government often has some advantages like great economies of scale, and it does things business will underprovide due to long established in economics market problems like externalities, ect., etc.). You can find union garbage men in some cities making $60,000 per year, but this pales in comparison to the multi-billion dollar pay of finance CEOs who bankrupted their companies. You can find some government exec. who has a fancy office, but you’re not going to find one who spent one million dollars of his employer’s money on a birthday party for his wife like Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski did.

    Nonetheless, the Republican propaganda machine has people voting again and again for tax cuts and small government even though they want big government and are willing to pay for it because of these ridiculously exaggerated lies.

    The result is you get severe degradation of the quality of American family life like this:

    http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_14303473

    Contrast this with the 1950s when people had trust in government, taxes on the rich were far higher, and we built the great American middle class, with the highest level of college grads in the world (we’re 7th today and falling fast), marvelous cities for families, and a California that was a wondrous place, not a decayed and dying basket case.

    We have to fight this Republican propaganda head on and hard, but so far Obama has been scared to.

    • Not the Mike You're Looking For says:

      Don’t forget that the Republicans have appointed people so incompetent that they ensured that government would be inept. As Rob Corddry once said, they believe in limited government–limited in effectiveness, that is. (I wish I could find the clip, but I can’t.)

  4. Tim says:

    The Montreal Protocol, banning ozone-destroying CFCs. (Too bad they left out methyl bromide, though.)

  5. Kaleberg says:

    The government has lots of success stories:

    Mass production was government, not market driven in the late 18th and early 19h century. By the mid-19th century, most manufacturers had adopted “armory practice””, so we don’t think it odd that any bolt in a box of hundreds will work with any nut in a box of similar size, but that’s the government for you.

    Ciomputers. The government was customer zero in the 1880s and has been pumping money in since. There’s a reason so much research came out of Silicon Valley, and it has to do with NASA Ames and the other government funding agencies in that area.

    Ball bearings, the airplane, mechanical sh-t kickers were all developed at the Silicon Valley of the late 19h and early 20th century, the Patterson army logistics base in Dayton.

    Railroads were heavility subsidized by the government. Most rail companies went broke in the market place, and passenger rail has NEVER been profitable. It took billions of 19th century dollars, but the US got itself a national rail system. Ditto for aviation with its post office, research, airport, blah blah blah subsidies. As noted, the Wright brothers were based in Dayton for the government contracts, and they got the whole base there renamed for them.

    The automotive industry required massive subsidies for roads and a reliable fuel supply. Even now, states that want automobile plants usually pay to build them for private operators. There’s also an entire police force and court system that deals with automobiles and trucks.

    I always compare free enterprise to fire. There is nothing quite like it for lighting, heating or running an engine, but you don’t set your house on fire just because it is cold outside.

  6. Rebecca Z. says:

    National Institute of Health, and its competitive grant process; the basis of so much of profits in the health-care industry today.

  7. Owen says:

    During WWII the army was worried about a repeat of the Spanish flu epidemic which was contributed to and massively spread by a large number of sickly, immune-suppressed (due to trench life) soldiers from around the world mingling and then demobilizing thus carrying each others germs to the corners of the globe. The army started a research project to prevent this from happening again. One of their key hires was a promising young researcher named Jonas Salk. That team came up with and implemented in post0war Europe and the US the regional centers that take samples of local flu varieties and rapidly produce fresh vaccines to match the annual mix of bugs going around. Those centers became the basis of and template for much of the international public health infrastructure that exists today. Dr. Salk went on to a pretty good career too.

  8. willy says:

    Most of the things people are willing to pay taxes for are done at the local and state level, or by private enterprise (police, fire, water treatment, waste management, K-12 education, etc). What we don’t need is a federal government that meddles in everything and spends all our tax dollars trying to police Middle Eastern countries.

  9. David says:

    Here’s a request from Minnesota economics: What are projects government did well by the dimension of employment protection?
    So this is a list of things into which government put resources and they turned out to be good investments. But that’s a different criterion than when they hire people and it’s a productive use of their time and improves aggregate welfare because it’s a form of insurance.

    I guess this is an anecdote request: when was there a recession and the government employment has proved to have been a useful buffer. We were just discussing an idea for a model of this after a workshop. The old Keynesian theorists all thought that direct government employment served a useful purpose in recession, but even the New Keynesians have largely abandoned that from their models.
    A group of us at Minnesota are thinking of ways to resuscitate the idea in the theory, which is a bit ironic seeing as UMN has the reputation as more Chicago School than Chicago.
    Mike, any suggestions?

  10. Simon van Norden says:

    In no particular order
    – the national highway system
    – DARPAnet/Internet

    These are particularly interesting because
    – we really, really can’t imagine modern life (or business!) without them.
    – we can contrast them with earlier revolutions in which the private sector played a relatively larger role. In transportation, we can compare the railway building boom of the 1800s with the highway boom of the 1900s. In communications, telephone and telegraph network development were much more driven by the private sector than the goverment.

  11. Simon van Norden says:

    I think we all forgot a biggie: The Manhattan Project.

  12. MR Bill says:

    I happen to live in the TVA area, and it worked pretty dang well.
    National Forests, National Parks/Monuments
    For good or ill, the Highway/Interstate
    Most government astrophysical/astronomical work (yeah, non manned NASA)
    The CDC.

  13. Alexis says:

    Reducing lead exposure

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