Can Government Ever Do Anything Well?

President Ronald Reagan at the Berlin wall.

Few people trust the government to do what is well or right. A December 2017 Pew Poll revealed that just 3% of Americans felt that the government could do what is right “just about always” and 15% felt that government could do what is right “most of the time.” Regardless of how one breaks down the poll–by political party, ideology, generation, or race and ethnicity–the results remain dismal. The last time 50% or more of the public felt that the government could be trusted to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time” was October 15, 2002 (55%). Prior to Watergate, figures at or above 50% were the norm. On issues, the scores are somewhat better, but the government scores favorably among 60% or more of respondents only when it comes to keeping the country safe from terrorism, responding to natural disasters, and ensuring safe food and medicine.

In 2000, the Brookings Institution published a paper entitled “Government’s Greatest Achievements of the Past Half Century” to coincide with the start of the 21st century. The items were based on a review of 500 major laws that were adopted from 1944 through 1999. A significant number of the 25 biggest achievements were largely or wholly attained prior to Watergate. Those achievements included rebuilding Europe after World War II (ranked #1), expanding the right to vote (ranked #2), strengthening the nation’s highway system (#7), increasing older Americans’ access to health care, (#8), and containing communism (#14).

The paper identified three lessons from those successes. First, achievement was “firmly rooted in a coherent policy strategy.” Second, achievement appeared “to reside at least partly in the moral rightness of the cause, whether a belief in human equality, a commitment to world peace and democracy, or a commitment to honoring promises to previous generations.” Third, the achievement resulted from “government’s readiness to intervene where the private and nonprofit sectors simply will not.”

The first variable concerning coherent strategy is vividly illustrated in documents related to containing communism. In 1948, the National Security Council (NSC) provided a report to President Harry Truman to guide his foreign policy. The report defined the problem as follows:

The gravest threat to the security of the United States within the foreseeable future stems from the hostile designs and formidable power of the USSR, and from the nature of the Soviet system…

The risk of war with the USSR is sufficient to warrant, in common prudence, timely and adequate preparation by the United States…

Soviet domination of the potential power of Eurasia, whether achieved by armed aggression or by political and subversive means, would be strategically and politically unacceptable to the United States.

The report set two major goals:

Goal 1: “To reduce the power and influence of the USSR to limits which no longer constitute a threat to the peace, national independence and stability of the world family of nations.”

Goal 2: “To bring about a basic change in the conduct of international relations by the government in power in Russia, to conform with the purposes and principles set forth in the UN Charter.”

Afterward, the report provided five strategies for pursuing those goals:

Strategy 1: “Develop a level of military readiness which can be maintained as long as necessary as a deterrent to Soviet aggression…”

Strategy 2: “Assure the internal security of the United States against dangers of sabotage, subversion, and espionage.”

Strategy 3: “Maximize our economic potential, including the strengthening of our peace-time economy…”

Strategy 4: “Strengthen the orientation toward the United States of the non-Soviet nations; and help such of those nations as are able and willing to make an important contribution to U.S. security, to increase their economic and political stability and their military capability.”

Strategy 5: “Place the maximum strain on the Soviet structure of power and particularly on the relationships between Moscow and the satellite countries.”

Strategy 6: “Keep the U.S. public fully informed and cognizant of the threats to our national security so that it will be prepared to support the measures which we must accordingly adopt.”

In President Richard Nixon’s first annual foreign policy report to Congress in 1970, one found another clear problem definition:

Today, a revolution in the technology of war has altered the nature of the military balance of power. New types of weapons present new dangers. Communist China has acquired thermonuclear weapons. Both the Soviet Union and the United States have acquired the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on the other, no matter which strikes first. There can be no gain and certainly no victory for the power that provokes a thermonuclear exchange.

Nixon established a strategic goal of establishing a “durable peace.” He explained that the United States would “seek those areas in which we can agree among ourselves [U.S. allies] and with others to accommodate conflicts and overcome rivalries.” That goal involved three strategies:

Strategy 1: Peace through Partnership based on “a world of stronger allies, a community of independent developing nations, and a Communist world still hostile but now divided.”

Strategy 2: American strength based on the understanding that “peace… cannot be gained by good will alone.”

Strategy 3: Negotiation: Commitment to peace could “most convincingly” be “demonstrated in our willingness to negotiate our points of difference in a fair and businesslike manner with the Communist countries.”

Both Presidents were engaged in the larger cause–containing communism–that was deeply connected with the preservation of individual freedom and human dignity (“moral rightness”). That cause fell squarely within the constitutional functions of government. President Ronald Reagan would build on the successes of containing communism to roll it back and President George H.W. Bush would oversee the end of the Cold War on December 25, 1991.

Neither President knew where things would lead. Indeed, Nixon explained in his foreign policy report, “There is no textbook prescription for organizing the machinery of policy-making, and no procedural formula for making wise decisions.” That willingness to act decisively in the face of a degree of uncertainty is a trait shared by highly effective CEOs. Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkoetter Powell, Stephen Kincaid, and Dina Wang of ghSmart, a leadership advisory firm, published the findings of their study of 17,000 CEOs in the May-June 2017 edition of Harvard Business Review. They found:

[H]igh-performing CEOs do not necessarily stand out for making great decisions all the time; rather, they stand out for being more decisive. They make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction. They do so consistently–even amid ambiguity, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar domains. In our data, people who were described as “decisive” were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs.

To answer the question raised in this article’s title, government can do things well. A government that is characterized by a convergence of high-performing leaders, along with policy built on a clear problem definition, well-defined goals, and a coherent strategy, can accomplish remarkable things. The historical record provides unequivocal proof of that outcome.

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About Don Sutherland 83 Articles
Husband. Dad. American. Believes in America on account of its Constitution, ideals, and people. Character, principle, truth, and empirical evidence matter greatly everywhere, including politics and public policy.