Politics & Policy

Our Indispensable Government

The folks who brought you Benghazi, the IRS, and APgate are the ones we can’t do without.

Remember Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town where “all the children are above average?” Well, too many members of Congress inhabit a Lake Wobegon government, where every government program is also above average — not just successful, but essential.

Here is just one example: Among the many outrages that congressional Democrats have assigned to the sequester is that it could reduce the available slots in the Head Start program by as many as 70,000 children.

This was repeatedly hammered home last month when the Democratic leadership complained that Congress was giving additional flexibility to the FAA to avoid furloughs and flight delays, but didn’t restore Head Start funding.

#ad#“We ought not to be mitigating the sequester’s effect on just one segment,” said Representative Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, “when children . . . will be left unhealed.”

Yet a 2010 study and a 2012 follow-up analysis by the Department of Health and Human Services found that with a few exceptions, there were no lasting benefits to children participating in Head Start. In fact, “At the end of 3rd grade, there was suggestive evidence of an unfavorable impact — the parents of the Head Start group children reported a significantly lower child grade promotion rate than the parents of the non-Head Start group children.”

Head Start may not work, but since 1965, the federal government has spent nearly $200 billion of the taxpayers’ money on it. That’s more than we spent to put a man on the moon (adjusted for inflation). And President Obama has now called for making Head Start–style preschool universal.

And Head Start is hardly a unique example of government failure.

The federal government operates 126 separate anti-poverty programs. Since 1965, when we started the War on Poverty, we’ve spent over $15 trillion on these programs, yet we’ve hardly dented the poverty rate. We spend more every year on education, yet test scores and dropout rates fail to improve. Programs such as Social Security and Medicare are careening towards bankruptcy and threatening to take the country along with them. It is increasingly hard to find a single government program that efficiently and cost-effectively accomplishes its goal better than would private-sector alternatives.

Need more recent examples?

Assume for a moment that everyone in the Obama administration is telling the truth about Benghazi, the IRS harassment of conservative groups, and the surveillance of the AP reporters. That means that such major government institutions as the State Department, the CIA, the Justice Department, and the IRS were massively incompetent. The alternative to venality and corruption is that important government agencies are more or less incapable of organizing a two-car funeral. Feel better?

Yet at the same time we are told that the answer to any and every ill is to turn more power and responsibility over to those government agencies that have repeatedly failed us.

Just consider that under Obamacare, the IRS will be in charge of several important aspects of health-care reform, from enforcing the individual and employer mandates to determining who is eligible for subsidies through the exchanges. In fact, the official chosen to head the IRS Obamacare programs is Sarah Hall Ingram, who was formerly in charge of the IRS’s tax-exempt division, which is at the center of the scandal.

What could possibly go wrong?

Of course businesses and individuals don’t always get it right either. But the damage that government can do is far greater. If I make a mistake, it affects my life, perhaps the lives of my family, and maybe those of a few others. If a business makes a mistake, it can affect thousands more. But if government makes a mistake, it can affect everyone.

One doesn’t have to assume conspiracies or even bad faith to realize that government is not really “above average.” In fact, the history of government intervention is more Woe-Is-Us than Wobegon.

That’s something to keep in mind the next time we are told that we should give the government more money, power, and control over our lives.

— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.

Michael Tanner — Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Going for Broke: Deficits, Debt, and the Entitlement Crisis. You can follow him on his blog, TannerOnPolicy.com.

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