Size of Government: We’re asking the Wrong Question

Since the Reagan revolution in 1980, Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in a never ending war over the size of government, with Democrats espousing a generally larger role for government in our lives, and Republicans generally supporting a smaller role for government in our lives.  Sadly, however, this is one case where the aphorism, “size matters,” is simply unhelpful.

I previously posted, The Fallacy in Government Budgeting, which asked,

Why is there a complete lack of budgeting analysis about how much it costs to achieve the clearly identified state and federal education standards that are written into law?

Thus, the right question is not about the size of government, or even any particular line item in the budget.

The right question is whether or not government is providing a valuable service with taxpayers’ hard earned money.

In fact, President Obama correctly framed this question in his first inaugural address when he stated:

“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”

A microeconomics analogy is worth consideration here.  When most people make a purchase, while they hopefully consider whether or not they can afford the purchase, their most important consideration is whether the price they are paying for the product or service provides a good value.  That is why we tend to buy the larger package because we pay less per ounce for the larger volume, i.e., we get a better value for the bulk purchase.

When it comes to government budgets, most taxpayers recognize that in order to live in a civilized society, government must take care of certain collective responsibilities, including transportation infrastructure, public health, national defense, police and fire protection, and the education of our children.  In general, when the public is satisfied with government service, most people do not mind paying taxes to support valuable government services.

This is exactly why, though a majority of Americans are concerned with the federal deficit, a majority do not want to reduce government spending.  In fact, a majority of Americans want to increase spending on Education, Public Schools and Veterans Benefits.  Indeed, contrary to what media pundits might have us believe, there is not a single category of the federal budget regarding which a majority of Americans want to see reduced spending.  In fact, a plurality of Americans want to see level or increased spending in every area of the federal budget except foreign aid.

There are two key components to changing the conversation.  First, government and those who support its helpful role in our lives, must do a better job informing the public of the valuable services it provides, as too many people simply take our roads, police, schools and the myriad of other government services which benefit all of us, for granted.

But mere pro-government advertising is not enough.  Those who support the role of government in our lives must also acknowledge, that like any large organization, there is always room for improvement.  Government must constantly strive to improve the way it functions and let the public know that it is doing so.

After the Katrina FEMA fiasco, the Obama Administration was committed to improving critical FEMA services, as stated by, Carlos Dávila, director of Business Management Division, FEMA Recovery Directorate,

“You have to question everything—not from a cynical standpoint but a critical thinking standpoint.  Agencies need to have folks with passion.”

A recent report appropriately suggests that,

It is fitting that agencies take stock of their priorities and activities, identify opportunities to improve how they deliver results, and use analytics to demonstrate they are meeting mission goals efficiently and could do so at less cost in the future.

It is ironic that since the Great Recession, despite the fact that the US bailed out financial institutions and automakers which were deemed too big to fail, we do not analyze government services in the same manner.  Can our society tolerate public schools that fail?  The answer should be a simple no we cannot allow our public schools to fail if we want to continue to live in a civilized society.  Yet, as I wrote in, The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern, our Congress continues to act in a dysfunctional manner which further erodes public confidence in government.

So let’s start asking about the value of government services and insist that the value of those services constantly improves.  Perhaps then, we can stop asking the wrong question, because size alone does not matter.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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