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15 Feb 2011 - 12 Jul 2014
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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
Crowding Out Citizens Another negative consequence of the big-government bargain is that we’ve stopped noticing all the ways that state action crowds out community and citizen ownership of problems and solutions. When Americans come to think of government as a vending machine–drop in the coins and expect a great society to come out–then good citizenship shrivels. Citizens start to think their role is to pay, consume, and kick the machine when they’re unsatisfied. Government, as it has developed, too often drains first the incentive and then the capacity of groups of people to address problems on a human scale. Economist and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom has written powerfully about groups of citizens, all around the world, who have created nongovernmental networks to allocate resources, police a commons, punish free riders, and sustain high norms of mutual obligation and strong reciprocity. One needn’t be Newt Gingrich to ask why progressives can’t foster more such nongovernmental networks. Progressives say “it takes a village,” but then too often rely on an agency. We acknowledge that some problems–like the interstate behavior of rapacious health-insurance firms–happen on a scale that requires action of equal reach. We insist, however, that many more problems happen on a scale that we citizens can and should own and address.
Complaints Department One of the worst parts of the codependent left-right approach to government is that it is progressives who are blamed for this state of affairs, not conservatives. When one side is expected to do little more than rail against government, its failures at actual governance are not punished. The other side ends up bearing the full responsibility for making government work, and the full blame when it doesn’t. For all their flaws, the Democrats remain the only grown-up party in America, so it’s up to them to make government more responsive, adaptive, and effective–in practice, and not only in promises.
What Government Should Do
To do that, progressives need to update how they see the world. Market fundamentalists would have us believe that our success comes in spite of government. There is literally no evidence for this. If less were always better, then the least regulated economies would be the most successful economies. The opposite holds. It is, in fact, the rules, regulations, standards, and accountability that government provides that fuel and lubricate markets. A robust state is not mutually exclusive with a free market; it is required for it. This is why there is no robust private sector on earth that isn’t accompanied by an equally robust public sector.
Societies can be successful only with the civic cooperation, strategic organization, and economic moderation that activist government provides. And the larger and more complex a society becomes, the more government must do to provide the basis for continued success. True prosperity is always a consequence of generalized prosperity, and only progressive activist government can achieve that. The law of the jungle–market fundamentalism–brings just one possible outcome: a jungle.
Government is what turns the jungle into a garden. To govern poorly is to “let nature take its course,” which results in wild growth by a few noxious weeds and the eventual collapse of the garden. To govern well is to tend the garden: to weed, to seed, and to feed. We believe firmly that a market is the best tool ever invented to generate solutions to human problems. But since there is no such thing as a market without a government, the only question is how well, to what ends, and with what skill the government shapes and adjusts the life of the market–how well it tends–so that it yields solutions for the common good.
Let’s explore in greater depth, then, the proper role of government.
Our bumper sticker is that government should do more what, less how: a stronger hand in setting great national goals and purposes; a lighter touch in how we reach those goals. Government should be less a service provider and more a tool creator; less wielder of stick than of carrot; less the parent than the coach; less the vending machine than the toolkit for civic action. A more what/less how government should set the bar high and invest fully in a great springboard–then let people, through dedication and practice, compete to get over the bar.
Here are the elements of a big what:
To set goals for the community, whether it’s a nation or a state or a city, and to do so with prejudice–that is, with an implicit moral opinion that some outcomes are preferable to others. Clean energy is better than dirty. Going to college is better than not. Real food is better than junk food. Generating credit for productive economic activity is better than casino capitalism. And so on. When a market is left to itself, what ensues is a race to the bottom. The government’s job is to set in motion races to the top.
To equip every citizen with the greatest possible capacity–and equal opportunity–to join in the pursuit of those goals. This begins with common defense and police and courts and so forth. It means spending some of the common wealth–generated by taxes–to improve education and health and to ensure that the disparities between the wealthiest and the poorest never grow so wide that it undermines social mobility. It also means investing heavily where it’s strategic and where national scale is essential, whether that’s physical or technological infrastructure, and where only the government can build a wealth-generating commons that market participants alone would never venture to build.
TAGS: Governance, Liberalism
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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