When you talk to people these days (I try not to, but sometimes I have to), you're very likely to hear the "government is too big" statement. More often than not, it's couched in something that sounds serious and thoughtful, like concern about entitlements. It's now conventional wisdom: government needs to be smaller.
This kind of stuff makes me want to scream. It's like people have some kind of fantasy that in the 21st century we can live like the pioneers. Or that left to their unregulated ways Exxon, Bank of America, the Koch Brothers, and all the rest would behave honorably, with the best interests of everyone in mind.
Come on. Let's get serious folks. We need a government that's big enough to do what we want and need it to do. No bigger, but just that big. And what the first three-quarters of the 20th century show is that putting our government to work on things has had some really good results.
Bill Moyers recently interviewed Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator for Financial Times. The whole interview is worth listening to, and I recommend it, but I wanted to highlight the concluding comments.
BILL MOYERS: Would you agree that despite what happened this week and the political victory that President Obama seems to have won, would you agree that the conservatives have really won the argument about government?
MARTIN WOLF: I think that is true. What has surprised me is how little pushback there has been from the Democrat side in arguing that the government really did have a very strong role in supporting the economy during the post crisis recession, almost depression, that the stimulus argument was completely lost though the economics of it were quite clearly right, they needed a bigger stimulus, not a smaller one.
It helped, but it didn't help enough because it wasn't big enough. And they're not making the argument that government has essential functions which everybody needs in the short run. Well, we can see that with the national parks. But also in the long run the strength of America has been built, in my perspective, particularly in the post war period, since the Second World War on the way that actually the public and private sectors have worked together with the government providing enormous support for research and development.
It's been the basic support of America's unique position in scientific research. You look at the National Institutes of Health which are the most important medical research institutions in the world, these are all products of the willingness of the United States to invest in the long term interest. Then there's the infrastructure, think of the highway program, which was the most important infrastructure project under the Republicans interestingly.
And those arguments seem to have been lost. So I am concerned that the government that I think Grover Norquist once said he wants to drown in the bath. If you drown your government in the bath in the modern world, we don't live in the early 19th century, it's a different world, that the long term health of the United States will be very badly affected.
It's strange to me that a government which has obviously achieved very important things, think of the role of the Defense Department in the internet, has achieved such important things, that's just one of many examples, it should be now regarded as nothing more than a complete nuisance. And the only thing you need to do is to cut it back to nothing.
And it does seem to me that the Democrats have, for reasons I don't fully understand, basically given up on making this argument. And so in a way the conservatives, the extreme conservative position has won, because nobody is actually combating it. So it's only a question of how much you cut and how you cut it rather than, "Well, what do we want government for? What are the good things about it? What are the bad things about it? How do we make it effective? And how do we ensure that it's properly financed?"The Moyers web quotes a citation of Martin Wolf as “the premier financial and economics writer in the world.” He certainly seems sane to me.