So…when all is said and done, what do we as the American public want the role of government to be? We obviously don’t want the federal government to be too big, but we’re shocked and appalled when the federal government fails in dramatic ways…like in the response to Hurricane Katrina. We want lower taxes, but also expect our Congressional representatives to sustain the ‘critical projects’ for our own districts, states and special interest groups with a continuous flow of federal funding. We want to compete effectively in our global economy, but we don’t want our government to fully fund an educational system that will make this possible. Hey, let’s face it…in our highly polarized political climate these days, we’re exhibiting some pretty schizophrenic symptoms on how we see the role of government…most therapists would put us on some serious medications. What do we want our government to do for us…and, more importantly, with us?
This could be an important conversation…what is the role of government in the 21st century? The philosophical poles are pretty clear…absolutely no government intervention at all versus absolutely complete government control. I don’t know anyone who would believe in either of these extremes, so that means all of us fall somewhere in between. It appears we agree that government should do some things…but we’re not exactly sure where to draw the line. It appears that we have a variety of options as we try to figure out some rationale in deciding what government should do and what it shouldn’t do: ‘minimize government intervention wherever possible,’ or ‘equalize public value for all,’ or ‘maximize the triage value of government safety nets.’ What do we want our government to do for and with us…and how would our foundational values reshape the way we talk about the role of government?
On this topic, I found the Op-Ed by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times on September 2, 2009 to be particularly helpful…here is a poignant excerpt:
“Until the mid-19th century, firefighting was left mostly to a mishmash of volunteer crews and private fire insurance companies. In New York City, according to accounts in the New York Times in the 1850s and 1860s, firefighting often descended into chaos, with drunkenness and looting. So almost every country moved to what today’s health insurance lobbyists might label ‘socialized firefighting.’ In effect, we have a single-payer system of public fire departments. We have the same for policing. If the security guard business were as powerful as the health insurance industry, then it would be denouncing ‘government takeovers’ and ‘socialized police work.’ Throughout the industrialized world, there are a handful of these areas where governments fill needs better than free markets: fire protection, police work, education, postal service, libraries, health care. The United States goes along with this international trend in every area but one: health care.”
I think Mr. Kristof makes some interesting comments about the capacity of government to do some things very well…and perhaps better than the private sector in some life-saving instances. It’s important to remember this when so many voices these days seem to be demonizing any involvement of government in health care. But his presentation appears to assume that we’re faced with only either-or options, rather than the both-and, blended solutions that are also available. Private security companies supplement police coverage for many companies and families without any worry that they will take over in public safety. Public and private institutions of higher education coexist quite well without threatening each other. What’s more…blended solutions are responsible for some adaptations that have the potential to refocus public resources as our postal service and our libraries revise their methods for greater effectiveness in the information age. Certainly, government can provide significant value in our society, but increasingly this value is being delivered in a new world of blended solutions rather than through government-dominated institutions. In adapting public policy on health care, I believe our conversations should stop focusing on either-or options when what we really seem to want is a sustainable blend of public and private efforts that will actually serve the needs of everyone.
Let’s talk about the changing role of government…and how the ripple effect of these changes can reshape public policy in our states, counties and cities. We’re probably not going to agree in any theoretical debate…people haven’t for the past 200+ years. What we might eventually agree on is this…that we need a practical public conversation about how we work things out between the philosophical extremes. This is the work of deliberation in the 21st century…discovering the most effective, dynamic and sustainable blend of public and private resources and innovation to support the well-being of our citizens and our country.