Review of "In Defense of Government"
April 26, 2000
In Defense of Government: The Fall and Rise of Public Trust by Jacob Weisberg, Scribner, $22The stunning results of the 1994 Congressional elections were sobering, indeed, to those of us who believe that government can be a force for good. Pre and post-election polling show that the public's level of confidence with anything associated with Washington, DC hit an all-time low on November 8, 1994. In his 1991 inaugural address, Ronald Reagan said that "government is not the solution to our problems; it's the problem." Fourteen years of government bashing at the White House finally took its toll on election day. It was the greatest anti-government vote in the nation's history.The conservative version of what happened on Election Day two years ago is that the New Deal had finally run its course, that Lyndon Johnson's Great Society expanded benefits for the poor so much that the public's taste for an expansionist government had finally eroded. As neo-liberal political journalist Jacob Weisberg correctly points out in his first book, In Defense of Government: The Rise and Fall of Public Trust, the conservative version of those events is flawed. The fact of the matter is that many of the programs now under attack by the Right started in the New Deal.Weisberg maintains that the liberal account of the decline in the public trust revolves around the issue of race. He claims that issues such as affirmative action and busing ultimately brought the Democrats down in 1994. About this, he is mistaken. Race may have been a factor in the Democrats' debacle. But it was hardly the major factor. The liberal version I'm familiar with -- which accounts for the public's loss of faith in government -- began with the assassination of our political leaders in the 1960s, followed in succession by Watergate, Vietnam and the Reagan Era. Distaste for government had become bipartisan. The FBI, hated in the 1970's by the Left, had come under attack by the NRA and the Freemen in the 90's. Of course, all of this is in the grand tradition of open hostility toward the federal government since the country's founding. The best parts of Weisberg's book are his prediction of the Republican crack-up under Newt Gingrich and his willingness to take on the public employee unions. Weisberg predicts that the attack on middle class entitlements such as Medicare will effectively end the two year-old Republican revolution this November. His concern is that the Democrats will not be up to the challenge after taking back the Congress unless they deal with the performance problems of the federal government. Bad or discourteous service at the local post office, for example, fosters public resentment. If a public employee can't be fired because of civil service protections -- or in the case of public school teachers: tenure and seniority -- then what, Weisberg asks, compels that person to do a good job?.Weisberg makes the crucial distinction between public and private unions, railing at the former and decrying the loss of membership in the latter. The public employee unions are a loyal Democratic constituency and a prodigious fundraising machine. For that reason, Weisberg notes that it will be dicey for the Democrats to take them on despite the fact they have always opposed changes in the campaign finance system and last year, stood in the way of meaningful welfare reform.Notwithstanding its title, Weisberg's defense of government is tepid to a fault. He never reminds us that government does those things that the private sector disdains or finds unprofitable. Still when any government agency does something right, hardly anybody notices. Common sense tells us that the private and public sectors are both fully capable of bureaucratic excesses. Likewise, it can't always be assumed that the private sector always works and government never does, our mythology notwithstanding. So, for example, he could have defended the Food and Drug Administration for keeping harmful drugs off the market. But, he doesn't. He could have congratulated the stellar work of FEMA which comes to the rescue of earthquake and hurricane victims. But, he doesn't. In short, Americans hate government red tape, bureaucracy, and regulation; but they also want their airlines and food to be safe.Weisberg believes that the restoration of the faith in the federal government is essential for the Democrats to stay in power. Amongst his recommendations is that this streamlined and revitalized federal government stay out of the business of trying to regulate matters that are beyond regulation. He maintains that individuals through their own actions should be willing to accept some element of risk and that the government should not automatically come to the rescue. The short answer to this misplaced recommendation is that if our drinking water isn't safe to drink, we expect the government to make sure it is. No one should have to file a lawsuit after eating rancid meat. The Agriculture Department has an affirmative duty to insure the meat we eat is safe.While a case can be made for a streamlined and smaller federal government and the privatizing of certain functions such as mail delivery or garbage service, I would argue for greater regulatory oversight over the financial and insurance industries, to cite just two examples. Weisberg never mentions that wholesale deregulation of certain industries can have serious negative repercussions. To cite a most obvious example from our recent past, only ex-Congressman St. Germain and ex-Senator Garn might argue that the Garn-St. Germain Act was the right approach in deregulating the Savings and Loan industry in 1981. This one law led to the S&L disaster which followed a few years later. The fact is the federal government has a proper role to play in smoothing out the ravages of an unbridled market system.The greatest weakness of the book is the author's confused thinking about welfare and social security. In the final chapter, Weisberg asks a very important question: "If we opt to help the worst-off, won't we drive members of the middle class farther from supporting affirmative government and the party that believes in it?" Not necessarily, he replies, for "...there is no reason we can't help the middle class and the poor at the same time," Well, there is if balancing the budget remains a priority, and Weisberg indicates that one way to restore Americans' faith in their government is to bring its financial house in order by balancing the budget.On welfare, he seems to be conflicted. Early on, he notes that welfare has become a symbol for what is wrong with the liberal version of government. He says "liberals have often defended welfare by noting that its costs are low relative to other programs. But the price is not the point; the nature of the expenditure is." Later, however, he contradicts himself by correctly noting that programs that benefit middle class people dwarf those that help the poor. Once seniors and the middle class recognize this fact, Weisberg opines, they will reluctantly agree to means -- testing social security and capping their home mortgage interest deduction, respectively, to help pay for welfare programs for the poor. This is pure fantasy. The better-informed bet would be all-out class and age warfare. So while he correctly envisions the Republican crack-up, Weisberg fails to understand that if the Democrats mess with middle class and old-age entitlements to help the less fortunate, they would be digging their own grave. The Democratic Party, which regularly gets its congressional candidates elected because they hand out entitlement checks to four out of every ten Americans, will find it difficult to survive the policy changes Weisberg envisions. Those structural reforms can only be proposed by third party candidates who have nothing to lose by telling older and richer Americans the truth. Democrats officeholders will only face the music -- and then, only reluctantly -- when the reality of too much red ink in social security and Medicare can no longer be avoided. But avoid it they will until they no longer can. And by then, it could be too late.