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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 read the other essays in the First Principles symposium, click here.
hat is government for? Over the last two years, this has been the dominant question of American politics. Yet so few leaders have offered coherent answers.
The Tea Party energized the right during the midterm elections but offered little more than a reprise of unworkable ideas and worn rhetoric about “limited government.” The left, meanwhile, has been in a defensive crouch, reluctant either to embrace Great Society methods of governing or to acknowledge their shortcomings. President Barack Obama last spring offered up a spirited defense of government in a commencement speech at the University of Michigan. But defending government is not enough. There is a higher threshold, for the President and all of us: to articulate, during this time of flux, an affirmative progressive theory of government.
What should we expect government to do? How should government be doing it? And when we say “government,” just whom do we mean?
The current dissatisfaction with government is not a mere perception or marketing problem, as too many on the left still believe. It is a product problem. Government has for too many people become unresponsive, dehumanizing, and inefficient. Only when we improve government itself will our satisfaction with it improve. Unfortunately, the American discourse on government has long been frozen in two dimensions: more vs. less, big vs. small. We argue for an orthogonal approach: more government when it comes to setting great goals and investing to achieve them; less government when it comes to how we collectively meet those goals. We believe this has to be a progressive project. Because progressives remain the only group in America willing to advocate for government, we have a special responsibility to imagine its role anew.
The Mushy Amalgam
This philosophy, if we can call it that, fails on three levels: theoretical, empirical, and political. On the level of theory, limited-government conservatives misapprehend both the meaning and value of freedom, and the essential role of government in democratic capitalist societies. Conservatives thunder about totalitarianism and socialism, but well short of those extremes is a broad sweet spot where government actually enhances freedom and promotes wealth creation. Empirically, there is not a single example to be found of a nation that practices “limited government” and is wealthy, secure, and stable. Not one. And for all their preaching about the size of government, conservatives have never been able to practice what they preach and shrink the state when they’ve been in power.
Ah, but the left doesn’t fare much better. We have from progressives an approach to government that for decades has been on autopilot. Obama has put forth some positive reforms that seek to reimagine progressive governance, from Race to the Top in education to health-care innovation incubators to stimulus funding that encourages clean-energy projects. But he has not made such initiatives the signature of his governing philosophy. More to the point, he has yet to spell out a governing philosophy, a big story of what government is for. For all the self-doubt and hand-wringing among progressives today, the reality is that we still live in a nation where the New Deal/Great Society template is dominant. Far too many of us, even in this season of discontent, accept a substantial state role in every sector of the economy, in which big government is meant to counter big business. We all expect government to provide a cushion against all manner of risk and misfortune, and to right all manner of social wrongs.
The result is a mushy amalgam that suits both parties. Democrats get to overpromise what government can do for people, while the GOP gets to underdeliver. Voters enjoy getting benefits from the state but also like hearing that they shouldn’t have to pay so much for it. It’s a nice arrangement for everyone but future Americans. This unspoken bargain leaves us with a national government that is ever more detached and sclerotic; that crowds out citizen action; and that is understood by the public to be the responsibility ultimately of just one party.
Sclerosis In a society as dynamic as ours, problems come too fast, and institutions are too slow. Bigness–whether at General Motors or the Postal Service–is not tolerated anymore. And people pay the price for bigness. Consider that the state of California annually spends almost $250,000 on each youth in its juvenile-justice system–and gets an 80 percent recidivism rate. If this happened one time, with one year’s cohort of kids, it would be an abysmally poor use of resources; that it happens year after year, without change or improvement, is criminal. More specifically, it is criminal that government remains so siloed, non-strategic, non-adaptive, and blind to outcomes. Once upon a time, someone built, on an industrial model and metaphor, a machine for solving the problem of juvenile delinquency. And then humans stopped running or adjusting the machine. The story plays out in our public schools, our mental-health system, our child-welfare system. Liberals should be outraged by this sclerosis, because it literally and routinely kills the weak.
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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