We’ll never settle on the right role for government

An election always seems like it’s of the moment. The concerns voters carry with them into the booth spring from recent headlines, nonstop online arguments, and the latest coffee-shop debate. They can be as fresh as the day’s news.

Yet this year’s election reminds us that in our democracy, the politics of the day can also be rooted in arguments of centuries’ standing. The rise of the Tea Party is a response in part to health-care reform and other policies undertaken by the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress. But it is also the latest manifestation of the great debate between Alexander Hamilton, the champion of centralized government power, and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, advocates of a more limited view of federal power.

Their dispute over the proper role of government in dealing with our challenges has been, in many ways, the enduring and central question of our democracy — a constant in our political discourse, sometimes holding the limelight, sometimes receding into the background, but always present. The debate is often clamorous, robust, and passionately argued, but it will not be finally resolved in this election or, for that matter, in any other.

You can get a sense of why this might be by considering the public response to disaster — the Gulf oil spill, a salmonella outbreak, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession. Ordinarily leery of government overreach, Americans don’t just turn to government at times of crisis, they want it to respond quickly, efficiently and effectively. When it can’t, when it turns out that the regulatory apparatus or emergency response capabilities were allowed to atrophy because of neglect, under-funding, or political games-playing, they get disillusioned, even angry, over government’s incapacity to perform.

In a sense, then, the debate over the proper size, reach and purview of government is ingrained in the electorate. When voters want action to solve a wide range of economic and social problems, they often turn to government, even while harboring doubts about its ability to address the problem and resenting the taxes it relies upon to do so. In the 2008 elections, Americans wanted government to do more, not less. Two years later, presented with a more activist government, they believe it’s doing too much.

This nationwide fissure, in turn, reflects a basic split within ourselves. Members of Congress on the campaign trail are always looking for insight into how people feel about the role and performance of the federal government. They can certainly find people who flatly and consistently prefer it to be doing less or doing more, but quite often they run into people who want a more limited role for government — then turn around and complain it didn’t do enough on this or that issue. I can remember sometimes thinking that I’d just had a conversation with a voter who was a conservative, a moderate, and a liberal all at once!

This explains why reform efforts aimed at making government more efficient and effective attract so much interest, both on Capitol Hill and among the public at large. There is no shortage of rightful complaints about government performance: about ineffective programs that never seem to be shut down; about contracts and grants that reek of favoritism; about unfair tax breaks and benefits going to people who don’t deserve them; about government agencies whose management and technology seem to be stuck in previous decades.

In many cases, arguments about government’s size and reach are really arguments about its effectiveness — about eliminating waste, encouraging efficiency, adopting modern management and information systems, getting accountability, and using better metrics in evaluating government’s performance.

At the end of the day, then, it isn’t a choice simply between big government and small government. There are a range of choices between government doing it all and government doing nothing. Most Americans are not rigid ideologues insisting uniformly on more government or less government. Rather, they are pragmatic. They want a smarter, more effective government. And as long as they keep expecting it to respond to their needs and beliefs, the debate over how it can best do so will — and should — continue.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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