The Trouble with Government

Government Is the Protector, Not Creator, of Rights

Why does the federal government perform so badly, asks Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University? It’s a step in the right direction for a political “liberal” even to pose that question. But although Bok notes several factors that inhibit the efficiency of Washington, he seldom addresses the most important failure of government: attempting to do more than it should. “The multiple responsibilities of the federal government give it exceptional opportunities to serve the people and fulfill their aspirations,” he writes. Alas, he complains, “At the same time, the government also has exceptional capacities to frustrate and disappoint its citizens.”

A cynic might ask “so what?” if people are frustrated with government. They shouldn’t be putting their faith in it to fulfill their aspirations. Instead, they should expect it to protect their rights, establishing the minimal framework for a free society. That, however, is far from Bok’s mind. He assumes government is the creator, not the protector, of rights and should actively manage “society.”

Bok admits that the state often manages badly and worries that “persistent disappointment over the government’s performance could deepen and solidify the public’s loss of trust and confidence in its officials and in their capacity to help people achieve their goals.” Of course, that warrants concern only if the business of government is helping people achieve their goals.

Bok thinks it is. Perhaps most shockingly, he argues: “Amid the welter of separate interest groups, religious denominations, advocacy organizations, and associations of all kinds, government is the one authoritative agency that can define, enunciate, and validate a set of common moral standards and obligations for all the people.” Distrust in government will naturally “weaken the moral authority of the State.” To expect that of government, however, is to ensure failure and disappointment, not because of constitutional structure, interest-group pressure, or citizen apathy, but because of the nature of political institutions, where coercion is applied by human beings responding to perverse political incentives.

There is another, more practical problem, Bok argues. When government promises to do something, and doesn’t perform, people are hurt. He explains: “a shoddy performance by public officials today can mean inadequate schooling for children, hunger for needy families, sluggish growth or even a recession for the economy, useless training for workers seeking job skills, substandard health care, polluted air, and a host of other misfortunes.”

That is quite true, but the analysis should not start with how can the government better educate children?, but should the government be in the business of educating children? Government failure is not so much a result of its not working as intended, but of its working exactly as intended. Why would one expect a centralized educational monopoly run by political officials accountable primarily to vested professional elites to be the best method of helping children learn?

Bok’s basic thesis, “the trouble with government,” makes the most sense when it comes to the essential, core roles of government. How does one efficiently and effectively defend the nation? How does one prevent and prosecute crime? Etc. Here, Bok’s analysis is generally thoughtful, sometimes provocative. He criticizes politicians and the media, but doesn’t strongly indict either group, writing that “the charges against them are not linked convincingly to the failures of the federal government to achieve the goals most Americans affirm.”

So Bok goes on to review the specifics of governing, asking why legislation is so badly designed and regulations so inefficient. Much of his analysis is correct, but he undermines it by assuming that government must be responsible and we must keep looking for better ways to legislate and regulate. For instance, he contends that government should be “protecting all Americans against the major hazards of life” and that poor people don’t have enough political power to demand that government create the right programs.

Bok dismisses many of the usual panaceas, such as direct democracy, citizen panels, and campaign-finance reform, but offers none himself. Some of his ideas would undoubtedly make Americans worse off, especially expanding the political power of unions.

He closes by calling for civic involvement, but simply convincing more people who want to use government to live at everyone else’s expense to vote is no answer to anything. Indeed, that reflects the fundamental flaw in Bok’s book. Making government more efficient and responsive would be an important goal if government were limited, doing only what it needs do. But when government is the most imperialistic of institutions, determined to take over not only the functions of most other social institutions, but decision-making by individuals as well, efficiency and responsiveness are not major concerns. Returning government to its proper role is.

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