Government hardly universally incompetentHere’s Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., speaking recently in opposition to government involvement
By: John M. Crisp, The Dickinson Press
Here’s Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., speaking recently in opposition to government involvement in health care reform: “We’ve never seen the government operate a plan of any kind effectively...”
This sentiment is a regular refrain on talk radio and at conservative rallies, but even granting some overstatement for political purposes, can it be anywhere close to the truth?
In fact, consider a contrary thesis: Often government is very effective at accomplishing the sorts of important communal tasks that the private sector wouldn’t even dare to undertake.
Examples are abundant. My favorite is the U.S. Postal Service, which delivers billions of pieces of mail every year with an infinitesimally low failure rate. The tendency to complain about the USPS is bewildering in the face of the evidence. In fact, unbiased scrutiny reveals a minor miracle: You can scribble an address on an envelope, affix a 44-cent stamp, and have it delivered anywhere in the United States a few days later with extraordinary dependability.
Yet, the USPS, not perfect perhaps but probably the best in the world, is held out as a paradigm of bureaucratic bungling.
What else has the government bungled its way through? The Interstate Highway System? World War II? The eradication of polio? The lunar landing? The Marshall Plan?
Would the civil rights reforms of the 1960s have been possible without federal lawmaking and intervention? The private sector played a part, of course. Black churches and the leadership of courageous citizens like Martin Luther King, Jr., were essential.
At the same time, most churches were content with the status quo — as King famously complained — or else stood in the way of reform. In fact, the reforms of the 60s were unlikely to have happened without federal lawmaking, followed by action.
What about other communal efforts at the lower levels of government, like the fire department and the police force? At my house, today is trash day. I’m certain that in a few minutes I’ll hear the trash truck out front collecting the trash bin from the curb, just as it’s done twice a week without fail for the past 15 years.
I’ve been drinking from the municipal water supply for close to 50 years, and it’s never once failed to be there for me, nor has it made me sick. I’m confident that you’ve had more or less the same experience.
Examples proliferate. The point is that some of our most essential cultural necessities and desires will never be resolved in response to the profit motive. In fact, sometimes the profit motive is the problem.
Health care is in this category; in fact, it’s hard to imagine a social need less congenial with the profit motive than good health for the entire commonwealth. Nevertheless, conservatives like DeMint, running on the momentum of several decades of dedicated government-bashing, achieve considerable traction against health care reform with anti-government assertions, even as they themselves already enjoy good health care, sometimes paid for by taxpayers.
DeMint is wrong about this. Perhaps we can overcome the self-hating assertion that government involvement necessarily entails incompetence and disaster.
Perhaps we can overcome, as well, the popular misconception that government-run, public health care is a disaster elsewhere. It’s not. And if all other Western countries have produced healthier societies with some version of public health care — and if we want it badly enough — it’s likely that we can produce a system at least as good as theirs, or better.
Perhaps delivering health care is more complicated than delivering the mail. But when, precisely, did we lose faith in our nation’s ability to create a safe, just, and healthy society, in spite of the difficulty of the challenge?
Now, excuse me. I hear the garbage truck out front, right on time, lifting the bin away from the curb. The mailman won’t be far behind.
— Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.