Politics & Policy

Public Health and Public Trust

Congratulations to Texas and the Aggies on becoming the home of a new federally backed center for emergency vaccines. The $91 million project, a joint effort by Texas A&M University, the federal government, and GlaxoSmithKline, will be responsible for the development and manufacture of vaccines during pandemics and other emergencies. Governor Rick Perry is of course very excited about this: The project will mean as many as 7,000 new jobs in Texas, and billions in expenditures, largely from out-of-state private and public sources.

Is this good news or not?

There are two ways of looking at this. Government spending is rarely welcomed here at Exchequer, and that $91 million is another $91 million we’re down in the hole. And while Texas and the Perry administration deserve great credit for making the state remarkably attractive to a variety of enterprises and investors, it is no secret that Texas is not above sweetening the pot for potential investors, that its methods for doing so are not immune from politics, or that the state’s leaders have a talent for keeping federal money pouring into the state for sometimes questionable projects. Practically every state and a large number of cities have economic-development funds similar to Texas’s; my impression is that Perry & Co. are no more impure than any other state administration when it comes to goosing the free(ish) market with tax dollars — they’re just a little bit better at it.

On the other hand, when government spends money, it should spend money on public goods. “Public good” is a term with a fixed meaning in economics, and it is not synonymous with “stuff that is good for the public” or “stuff the public likes.” Most of what the federal government spends money on (entitlements) is clearly not within the category of public goods, while a few things (missile defense, border patrol) clearly are. Some things, such as the federal highway system, are in a grey area, and might be considered public or non-public goods, depending on your interpretation.

Some public-health measures, such as mosquito-eradication programs in malarial areas, are clearly within the definition of public good, and it seems to me that things like the Centers for Disease Control and the  Aggies’ new pandemic-vaccine center are, too. And at the risk of sounding like a home-state cheerleader for Texas, if that $91 million center performs as advertised, then that is a relatively small price to pay for a measure of insurance against otherwise unmanageable, unforeseeable infectious epidemics, which are on my list of underrated threats. And that $91 million is not only a good investment in the event of a sudden epidemic; it is a good investment even if such an event never comes to pass, for the same reason that accident insurance is a good investment even if you never get in a wreck: Risk mitigation is inherently valuable, even if the trauma you are insuring yourself against never materializes.

But that all points to the unending challenge of trying to get government to behave: Even if  we concede that such a center is a good investment and well within the purview of federal action, we still have to worry about a great many variables: Will the project be managed effectively and efficiently? Will Glaxo’s lobbying arm turn it into yet another opening on the corporate-welfare trough? Will the project overgrow its original mandate through the inevitable mission creep associated with such undertakings? Is it a better use of resources than all the others to which we might have dedicated those funds?

Amity Shlaes’s much-admired new book on Calvin Coolidge deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it, not least because her Silent Cal is not merely a prudent and admirable figure but an inspiring one: President Coolidge, hunched over the federal accounts with his budget generals, is not just a penny-pinching puritan (though the world could do with a good deal many more penny-pinching puritans): He is a man expending every effort to ensure that Americans enjoy a government that is reliable and honest, a worthy steward of the wealth with which it has been entrusted. Self-government works well only when the people trust their institutions.

Progressives often complain that the contemporary Right is increasingly anti-government in both its rhetoric and its policy preferences; some moderate Republican types, such as David Frum, echo that criticism. But one possible reason that conservatives have arrived at a greater distrust of the government is that the government has become less trustworthy. The self-dealing and the friends-and-family appropriations that we now regard as business as usual in Washington may be entirely legal, but they are nonetheless wrong — not just ill-advised but immoral — and it is not surprising that Americans’ trust in public institutions (and many private institutions, such as Wall Street firms) is pretty low. This is a critical problem for a self-governing republic. Even when it comes to such core governmental functions as national defense and law enforcement, it is difficult to believe that all (or even most) of every $1 appropriated to the relevant agencies is used for the purpose intended.

It leaves us with a kind of double suspicion: We suspect that the federal government will often invest our resources in doing things that are none of its business, and we also suspect that it will manage to do a great deal wrong even when it is performing tasks that are appropriate to it. Progressives believe that our politics would be less toxic if conservatives were not so hostile to the public sector; conservatives believe that our politics would be less toxic if the public sector were less deserving of our hostility.

While Texas likes to boast of its economic performance in recent years, it has also made some important advances in the intangible area of public trust, for instance by making detailed information about government outlays easily available to the public. The state’s controller, Susan Combs, is something of a crusader when it comes to openness and transparency in government. And while the libertarian tendency is currently on the ascent among Republicans, rolling back government is only one part of the conservative agenda: Making sure that government operates with a sufficient probity and thrift is an important part, too, especially for conservatives who seek an active role in government. We’d like a smaller government, sure, but we also would like a government we can trust. That is something that has to be put to the test every day, whether there is $1 at stake or $91 million.

 Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent. His newest book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, will be published in May. 

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