All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Government Works: Why Americans Need the Feds by Milton J. Esman

A Screechy Little Book That "Defends" Statist Programs

Cornell University Press • 2000 • 196 pages • $26.00

Let’s imagine that we have been sitting through a trial. The prosecution has presented some powerful evidence against the defendant. The defense attorney rises and says, “All we have heard is a lot of mean-spirited bashing of my client. Why, not only does he not belong on trial, but he deserves praise for his wonderful works and humanitarian spirit! Just take my word for it, ladies and gentlemen. My client is so good, he ought to be up for sainthood!” The defense then rests. I ask you what you think of that defense. You reply that it’s so preposterously weak that it might as well not have been uttered.

In Government Works, Milton Esman, professor of international studies at Cornell University and self-proclaimed “progressive” has played the role of the defense attorney in my little tableau. Esman is despondent over the failure of progressivism to continue its march toward the bright future of equality, security, harmony, and social justice that seemed so attainable back in the early to mid-1960s. Since then, however, that radiant future has receded, mainly due to “rightist” activism. Poor Professor Esman. What’s an aging progressive to do when he just can’t stand the “unchallenged trashing of a central institution of American democracy” anymore. Write a book, of course.

But writing a book, like defending an accused person, can be hard work. A book that would prove that, as the title says, government works—or at least make a respectable effort at doing so—would be a tremendous undertaking. It would entail some heavy lifting in intellectual fields where Esman has no apparent competence, especially economics. Doing battle with all those horrid “right-wing” scholars would be a prodigious task, would get bogged down in details, and worst of all might wind up doing nothing to raise the morale of progressives. The solution is to do what our lazy attorney did: Declare that the whole case against progressivism is based on nastiness, assert that it is great and will solve our problems, and leave it at that.

And thus we get Government Works, a screechy little book that ignores the substance of free-market criticism of statist programs, but “defends” them by arguing that those who oppose the “progressive” agenda are only a bunch of mean, opportunistic Republicans and fat cats who have been bashing government to promote their own self-interest.

The bibliography is a good indication of the book’s incredible imbalance. Under the heading “The Current Debate,” Esman lists such pinnacles of scholarship as James Carville’s We’re Right, They’re Wrong, but never mentions anything by, just to pick a few well-known names, Richard Epstein, Milton Friedman, or James Buchanan. The closest Esman comes to even acknowledging the existence of free-market scholarship is this sentence: “The late 1970s witnessed the maturing and the achievement of intellectual respectability for ideologically rightist journals and think tanks that had been initiated a generation before by a small band of wealthy enemies of activist government.” That’s it. Unfortunately, “intellectual respectability” isn’t enough to cause the author to pay any attention to what those think tanks have to say. (Of course, many libertarian scholars are not funded through donations from those “wealthy enemies of activist government,” but for Esman to say that would be to deprive himself of his guilt-by-association ploy.)

Here’s an example. Esman repeats the leftist canard that the Depression was caused by the failure of capitalism, writing that “the Republican right has embraced economic laissez-faire and free market fundamentalism, rejecting decades of experience and scholarship regarding the limitations of the model, which two generations ago appeared to be seriously flawed by the Great Depression.” Sorry, professor, but the Depression was a case of government blundering from start to finish, as many “intellectually respectable” economists and historians have shown.

Esman wants all kinds of new interventionist, redistributive programs to work where he claims markets fail, and he sees market failure almost everywhere. He insists on “single-payer” universal health service, oblivious to the evidence that such a scheme would produce much worse results than would a true market (which we haven’t had for decades) in health care. He wants federally provided child care, but makes no argument at all that the market for child-care services doesn’t work or that there is any reason why women who want to hold jobs should be subsidized for that choice. And on and on.

Like the defense attorney who wants the jury to trust him on the goodness of his client, Esman merely asserts that we need more coercion in America and that it will always be put to splendid uses. It’s laughable.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.