Politics & Policy

A Federal Government That’s Not Good at Its Job Can’t Effectively Serve the ‘Common Good’

A view of the U.S. Capitol, in Washington DC, U.S., June 20, 2019. (Al Drago/Reuters)
Well-intentioned though conservatives calling for a more activist government may be, ours has failed miserably with the responsibilities it already has.

The 2007 comedy Hot Fuzz is about a hyper-competitive London policeman who is reassigned to what initially appears to be the sleepiest, most boring small town in the entire United Kingdom. After a series of wildly suspicious deaths that the other cops insist must be accidents, the policeman and his partner uncover — SPOILER ALERT — a cabal of locals who are murdering their neighbors over the most minor flaws and sins, all insisting, in a ludicrous chant, that their actions serve, “the greater good.” The bad actor in the local theater, a local woman with an annoying laugh, a resident with an ostentatious house — the town elders murder each one, all in the name of preserving the community’s award-winning reputation.

Fairly or not, every time I hear someone calling for “common-good capitalism” — even someone as likable and usually reliable as Senator Marco Rubio — I hear those deranged villagers who insist that enforcing their draconian punishments is for “the greater good.”

The common good can be pretty subjective. While it’s not that difficult to get Americans to agree on what is good in the broadest terms, it’s a lot tougher to build a consensus view of the good when you get down to specifics — not to even mention the difficulty of forging a consensus view of how to bring the good about. Rubio, who is after all a politician, lists “dignified work, strong families, and strong communities” in his definition. You would have to look far and wide to find an American who wants to see more undignified work, weak families, and weak communities. But while most might agree with Rubio’s goals, whether and how federal policy can achieve them are open questions.

For example, Rubio warns, “We’ve allowed ourselves to become almost completely dependent on China for rare-earth minerals” and wants the secretary of commerce to establish a “privately funded, privately operated and privately managed” Rare Earth Refinery Cooperative. That’s nice. It’s probably a good idea, though some may wonder why, if everything about this is going to be private, we need the Department of Commerce to set it up. But it’s hard to believe that even if it were a success, it would do much more than nibble at the edges of whatever ails us.

The biggest obstacle to getting access to the 18 million tons of rare-earth minerals in Bear Lodge, Wyo. is securing permits and overcoming objections from environmentalists. It is odd that a proposal like Rubio’s is treated as part of a new force in opposition to libertarianism, but it runs into the same complaints about government bureaucracy, slow permitting, and red tape made chiefly by . . . libertarians.

Rubio’s other ideas are the sort that shouldn’t really raise libertarian hackles that much: expanding the federal per-child tax credit, reforming the Small Business Administration, and so on. But they feel like small potatoes. If our capitalist system is doing a lousy job of serving the “common good,” well, that probably at least partially reflects problems in how our government regulates and creates incentives within it. Many Republicans and almost all Democrats are dancing around the glaring contradiction of asking a government that’s doing a terrible job fulfilling its current responsibilities to do more.

To listen to the Democratic presidential candidates, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are a bunch of xenophobic thugs, Customs and Border Patrol officers are abusing innocent children, the Office of Management and Budget held up aid to Ukraine for corrupt reasons, the entire federal government is asleep at the wheel when it comes to protecting our elections and voting systems, the Department of Justice keeps giving grants to police forces full of cops who are racist and abusive . . . and the only solution is to give the government more money and power.

Do these folks realize that their primary tool for promoting the common good is the sputtering, jury-rigged, frequently malfunctioning Rube Goldberg machine known as the federal government?

With almost comical regularity, if you ask the federal government to do X, it will, given tons of funding and having the best of intentions, accidentally give you the opposite of X. We have a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that sent 2,000 guns to Mexican cartels.  We have an Environmental Protection Agency that accidentally released 3 million gallons of wastewater tainted with iron, aluminum, manganese, lead, copper, and other metals into rivers in three states. The Office of Personnel Management’s job is to collect and protect information about federal employees; it did a terrific job of putting all of the potential blackmail material on every government employee who handles classified information in one place for Chinese hackers to steal. We have a Transportation Security Administration that failed to find hidden fake explosives in 67 out of 70 tests. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction found that the Pentagon could only account for 38 percent of the $3.8 billion allocated for the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program. The Department of Education spent more than $45 million on 537 charter schools that never opened. If you put the federal government in charge of banning porn, you’d probably end up getting Stormy Daniels videos sent to your phone by FEMA.

Is it really a good idea to give these folks bigger, more complicated duties?

A lot of good people work for the federal government. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get rid of the bad people who work there, and the good ones toil away in systems and offices that discourage change and new ideas, have few if any incentives for efficiency, use outdated technology, drown in paperwork, and have an obsessive fear of lawsuits. In addition to the traditional problems, in recent years many federal agencies have coped with a revolving door in their leadership. In his first 31 months in office, President Trump had two defense secretaries, two acting defense secretaries, two secretaries of homeland security, two acting secretaries of homeland security, two secretaries of state, one acting secretary of state, two CIA directors, and three chiefs of staff.

All of these existing agencies have a well-established mission meant to serve “the greater good,” from “don’t let weapons get onto planes” to “help build a decent society in Afghanistan” to “open new charter schools.” Some days they succeed, but all too often they fall flat on their faces. That fact should give pause to Senator Rubio and others on the right pushing for expanded government powers in the service of conservative ends.

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