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Issue #19, Winter 2011
The “More What, Less How” Government
First Principles: The Role of Government
Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer
To be very clear, we are not calling for a Reagan-style devolution that pushes responsibility down without providing the resources to do the job. We are not advocating unfunded mandates. If government is to set bigger whats, it must invest accordingly. When we say citizens should be doing more of the how, we mean they should get the tools to do it. The idea that states (or communities) should be laboratories for democracy is meaningful only if the labs are funded sufficiently to run good experiments.
This new theory of government cannot be put in a box. It’s not left or right or in-between. It’s “conservative” in that it is for localism and a federalist spirit and it wants to put markets and competition to good use to radically increase adaptability and accountability. It’s “liberal” in that it proposes a strong meliorist role for the national government to set ambitious goals, level the playing field, equip everyone to compete fairly and fully, and identify great failures of the commons that need to be addressed by shared action. It’s about national identity and local power.
The more what/less how approach to governing ourselves is not an excuse to slash public spending. It is not a call for a bossier nanny state. It is, quite simply, a framework for owning government in every sense: taking title to it, but also taking responsibility for it.
Government is what a society creates to solve common problems that each of us alone could not solve. We agree with the right that the job of government is to maximize individual autonomy. We just believe that the way to do that is to maximize the trust, cooperation, and equal opportunity that frames up each individual’s starting prospects. We agree with the left that the job of government is to ensure fairness and justice. We just believe that the way to do that is to put more responsibility on people to govern themselves by using more local, less distant, and more responsive means.
By binding us together to pursue broad national ends and equipping us to develop our own means, our more what/less how approach can fundamentally reorient how most Americans see government: not as them, but as us. We own it–if, to echo Franklin, we can keep it. We are also ready to accept the inevitable trade-offs you get when citizens do more for themselves.
Will this new theory of government, if implemented, create new problems? Of course. It will create its own unintended consequences and its own patterns of turf, faction, and short-termism. But it addresses the underlying problems of our politics today, and it does so by making government fundamentally more adaptive and accountable than it is today. A practice of continuous and cold-eyed evolution can replace the passionate rhetoric of perpetual but never requited revolution. That will help progressives, whom the public associates with government, regain standing. More importantly, it will help the United States, the nation most associated with democracy, regain effectiveness.
It is not enough, as we said at the outset, to defend government reflexively–or even thoughtfully. It is not enough to triangulate or buy time by cherry-picking a few Republican ideas. It is time, rather, for all of us to engage in sincerity the debate that the right opened in cynicism. It is time to set in motion a repurposing and a rebalancing of the roles that state and citizen play in the quest for true liberty and enduring justice. It is time, in short, for a new birth of progressive self-government.
ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011

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Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer are co-authors of The True Patriot and founders of The True Patriot Network. Liu served as a speechwriter and deputy domestic policy advisor to President Bill Clinton. He is an author and educator based in Seattle. Hanauer is a Seattle-based entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He is active in many progressive civic and philanthropic organizations and causes.
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