Government is Good: The Forgotten Achievements of Government

August 11, 2010 | Economic Opportunity Institute

Via Government is Good:

The popular view of government is that of low-achieving screw-up. When asked, “When the government in Washington decides to solve a problem, how much confidence do you have that the problem will be solved?” only four percent of Americans said “a lot.” Sixty-four percent said “none at all” or “just a little.” Of these, more than a three out of four said the reason was “government is incompetent” not that “those problems are often difficult to solve.”4 Surveys also show that a large majority of citizens (70%) believe that “government creates more problems than it solves.”5 Clearly, for many Americans, government is the Inspector Clouseau of institutions.

But how accurate is this popular image of the government as a bumbling fool? Actually, this is largely a stereotype – one based primarily on myth and selective anecdotal evidence. Of course anyone can cite a number of failed government policies – such as the war on drugs or public housing programs. But it is wrong to leap from this kind of anecdotal evidence to the conclusion that government as a whole is inherently incompetent. The reality is this: most government programs are successful most of the time. By and large, the public sector does a good job providing clean water to drink, keeping the peace, sending out Social Security checks, reducing workplace injuries, ensuring aircraft safety, feeding the hungry, putting out fires, protecting consumers, and so on.

Once we begin to look at the actual performance of major government programs, we see that the vast majority of them have produced substantial improvement in the problem areas that they are addressing – they have produced successful results. This is not the conventional wisdom, but it is what the evidence shows if you bother to look at it. Let’s consider some of that evidence.6

What follows is a short list of some of the federal government’s greatest accomplishments. These are policy programs that have not only worked, but have been very successful and have greatly improved the quality of life of most Americans.

  • Regulation of the Business Cycle. Until the recent deep financial crisis, we have tended to forget how dependent we are on the federal government to prevent economic depressions. Since the 1930s, the government has used a variety of monetary and fiscal policies to limit the natural boom and bust cycles of the economy. Before government took on this responsibility, severe depressions were a routine and recurring problem in this country – occurring in 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907 and 1929. Thanks to government intervention, we have been able to avoid the enormous amount of human suffering caused by these economic meltdowns – the massive joblessness, the destitution, the rampant hunger, the disease, the riots, the hopelessness and the despair. By any measure, eliminating these depressions and this misery has been one of the greatest – and often unheralded – achievements of our federal government.
  • Public Health Programs. A variety of programs run by the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local Public Health departments have greatly improved the health of most Americans. For example, the scourges of polio, cholera, and smallpox have been effectively eradicated from this country – a huge achievement. And vaccination programs have reduced by 95% our risks of contracting potentially debilitating diseases like hepatitis B, measles, mumps, tetanus, rubella, and diphtheria. Federal funds spent on buying and distributing these vaccines have saved countless lives and the billions of dollars it would cost to treat these illnesses. In addition, the dedicated scientists who work for the CDC are all that stand between Americans and a potentially catastrophic epidemic imported from abroad. The most likely and worrisome threat is from a new and deadly strain of bird flu. The last deadly flu epidemic to hit the United States, in 1918, killed over 675,000 people in matter of months.
  • The Interstate Highway System. Started by the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, this system now forms the backbone of long-distance travel and commerce in the United States. It makes up less than 1% of our highways, but carries almost a quarter of all roadway traffic. It has also allowed millions of Americans to move out of big cities and live in more pleasant suburban and small town environments. In addition, the interstate system has the benefit of being considerably safer than the old two-lane highways it replaced – saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Even some conservatives have been forced to admit the success of this building program, with George Will calling it “the most successful public works program in the history of the world.” It’s hard to imagine the U.S. without this interstate highway system, and this system would not exist at all if it weren’t for the government.
  • Federal Deposit Insurance. Another government program we’ve taken totally for granted until recently is federal protection of our bank deposits. In bad economic times, banks are inherently vulnerable to destructive “runs” – where worried depositors all seek to take out their money at the same time. Before the FDIC, in the depression of the 1930s, over 5,000 banks went bust and millions of Americans lost their savings. The main reason we had no disastrous runs on banks (and money market funds) during the financial panic of 2008 was that government was there to guarantee those deposits.
  • Social Security and Medicare. Without these two government programs, growing old would be hell for many Americans. Before Social Security and Medicare, millions of the elderly were doomed to spend their retirement years in poverty and illness. Social Security has cut the rate of poverty for the elderly by over half – from 29% in 1966 to 10% today. Not surprisingly, financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn has described Social Security as “arguably the U.S. government’s greatest success.” Medicare has also been incredibly successful. It has doubled the number of the elderly covered by health insurance, so that 99% now enjoy that benefit. Without this form of “socialized” medicine, 15 million of our neediest citizens would be going without many vital medical services and many would have to choose between food and medicine. Older Americans are now living 20% longer, thanks in part to this effective program. These two programs have done more than anything else to relieve the pain and suffering of our elderly population.
  • GI Bill Without this program, the middle class as we know it would not exist. The GI Bill provided government funds for 16 million World War II and Korean veterans to attend college. It allowed my father to become the first one in his family to graduate college, to become an engineer, and to go on to build a middle-class life for our family. Historian David Kennedy has remarked that “GI Bill beneficiaries changed the face of higher education, dramatically raised the educational level and hence the productivity of the workforce, and in the process unimaginably altered their own lives.”7
  • Federal Housing Authority. The middle class housing building and buying boom in the United States was initially financed by cheap GI Bill housing loans and by Federal Housing Authority insurance of conventional home loans. In 1945, only 44% of Americans owned their own home. But thanks in large part to the FHA program that lowered interest rates and down payments, 63% of Americans owned a home by 1968. These homes have become a multi-generational source of wealth for tens of millions of Americans. The FHA still insures over $50 billion a year in mortgages, and remains especially important for low-income house buyers.
  • Consumer Protection. In reaction to increasing public pressure in the early 1970s, government began to pass legislation to protect consumers from shoddy and dangerous products. The Consumer Product Safety Commission remains the key agency enforcing these laws. The need it fills is still a vital one – products kill over 20,000 consumers a year and injure over 25 million more. It would be far worse if the CPSC did not recall hundreds of products every year. It is estimated that its activities produce $10 billion in savings on the health care bills, property damage, and other costs associated with these defective products.
  • Anti-Discrimination Policies. Since the 1960s, policies like the Civil Rights Act and Title IX have chalked up impressive gains in decreasing discrimination against minorities and women. Racial segregation in hotels, restaurants and other public facilities has been eliminated. Housing discrimination and workplace discrimination, while not completely eradicated, have been substantially reduced. College enrollment for minorities has greatly increased, jumping 48% during the 1990s alone. In terms of gender, workplace discrimination and sexual harassment have decreased and record numbers of women are now attending colleges and graduate schools. There is still room for improvement – particularly in the area of equal wages – but it is clear that these policies have made substantial progress in eliminating racist and sexist practices that had existed for hundreds of years.
  • Clean Water and Clean Air Programs. America’s water and air are significantly cleaner than they were in the 1960s, thanks to federal legislation. The levels of four of the six air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act – nitrogen dioxide, smog, sulfur dioxide, and lead – have been reduced dramatically, by an average of 53%. The quality of the air has significantly increased in virtually every metropolitan area in the U.S. The Clean Water act has been similarly successful. When it was passed in 1972, only one-third of the nation’s waterways were safe enough for fishing or swimming. Today that has doubled to two-thirds. And while only 85 million Americans were served by sewage treatment plants in 1972, that figure has now risen to 170 million.
  • Workplace Safety. Businesses love to complain about the rules of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and sometimes its policies have been a bit overboard – but it has clearly been very effective in greatly increasing the level of protection for American workers. In 1970, the year before the creation of OSHA, 22,000,000 people were injured on the job and 14,000 died from job-related injuries. Since then, OSHA has helped to cut occupational injury and illness rates by 40 percent. Even more important, between 1980 and 2002, workplace deaths fell from 7.5 per 100,000 workers to 4.0. Particularly impressive has been its success against brown lung disease among textile workers, which has been virtually eliminated.
  • The Military. Even Rush Limbaugh, who has never met a government program that he likes, admits that the U.S. military is a great success story. Although debates continue to rage over how the military should be used, there is complete agreement that our Army, Navy, and Air Force are the most effective military organizations in the world today. We have the best trained and the best equipped armed forces, and they have an unparalleled ability to effectively project military force – as was demonstrated in the two recent Gulf wars. In the case of the military, the government has clearly done an exemplary job of creating a well-working and effective organization.
  • The West. Although few Americans think about this, much of the Western United States as we know it today is the creation of various federal programs. It has been that way from the very beginning, starting with government-sponsored explorations of the West in the early and mid-19th century. It continued with the federal government providing the money and troops for the depressingly efficient program of “Indian removal.” The government also sold public land to settlers for low prices and sometimes even gave it away. The railroads, which spurred so much growth in the West, would not have been built without massive subsidies from the federal government. And today, much of the farming in many Western areas is made possible by federal water projects, substantial parts of the ranching are subsidized by the artificially low grazing fees on federal property, and much of the mining is made more profitable by dirt cheap access to federal land. Cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas would dry up and blow away without the federally funded dam and canal projects that provide water to those arid regions. So it is ironic that while anti-big government sentiment is very strong in parts of this region, the West literally would not and could not exist as it does today without the sustained help of the federal government.
  • National Weather Service. This government agency not only makes your life more convenient by forecasting your daily weather, it also helps to ensure the safety of planes in the air and ships at sea and it has saved countless lives with its hurricane and tornado warnings. It also just keeps getting better. It’s predictions of hurricane paths has improved by fifty percent during the past 15 years; and its forecasts of weather 72 hours in advance is now as reliable as 36-hour forecasts 25 years ago.
  • Poverty Policies. This may seem counter-intuitive. Everybody knows that poverty policy is the classic example of government failure. How could it possibly be considered a success when the poverty rate is essentially the same as it was thirty years ago? The answer is that most of the policies aimed at the poor in the U.S. were never intended to get them out of poverty. They were only intended to alleviate the suffering of the poor – and studies have shown that they have been very successful in doing this.8 For example, food stamps have worked to greatly reduce hunger and malnutrition among the poor. The poor are much healthier and have more access to medical treatment thanks to Medicaid. And rent subsidies have allowed many of the poor to move out of places with leaking roofs, inadequate heat, and faulty plumbing. These three programs form the backbone of our anti-poverty efforts – their combined budgets are eight times larger than that for welfare – and in terms of achieving their stated goals, these programs have to be considered impressive government successes.
  • Student Financial Aid Programs. College is getting increasingly expensive and more and more students require financial help to attend. The federal grants, loans, and work study money provided by the Department of Education form the largest source of college financial assistance, providing billions of dollars in funding each year. These programs have worked to remove financial barriers for students and thus create more equal opportunity in higher education. They have been a major factor in producing the rapid increases in college enrollment seen in the last 50 years, and they have also contributed to the increasing class and racial diversity of the college population.
  • Food and Drug Safety Programs. The federal government enforces extensive rules to protect the public from tainted food and directly regulates both the meat and poultry industries. It also plays a key role in ensuring the safe use of pesticides on agricultural products, both from here and abroad. Federal authorities are also on the frontlines in combating new threats to our food system, such as mad-cow disease. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration ensures that the drugs we take are pure and effective – an enormously complicated enterprise. Every year the FDA identifies almost 3,000 products that are unfit for consumption and ensures their withdrawal from the marketplace. Americans are undoubtedly safer and healthier thanks to these government programs.
  • Funding Basic Science Research. Most research on basic scientific topics – in physics, biology, chemistry, etc. – does not have immediate commercial applications and so this work is highly dependent on government funding. Federal funds pay for 80% of the basic science research in this country, through laboratory facilities in universities and in government agencies such as the National Institutes for Health. For this reason, the government deserves a great deal of credit for the important scientific and technological breakthroughs produced by these efforts. In just one area – biomedical science – basic research has provided the foundation to develop new diagnostic technologies, such as nuclear magnetic resonance machines, and new treatments for cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases. It is revealing that nearly half of the most important medical treatments in the field of cardiovascular-pulmonary medicine have their origins in basic research attempting to unravel the mysteries of the lungs, heart, and muscles – work done by scientists not working in this specific disease area.9 Beyond such practical payoffs, government-funded basic research has also made important progress in answering many of the most profound questions that have baffled humanity for centuries: What is the nature of matter and energy – and the nature of reality itself? How did the universe begin? How will it end? Are we alone in the universe? What is the nature of life – and how did it begin? The achievements of basic science in the United States have been many and stunning – and these are achievements of government as well.

Pretty impressive – and this list could go on much further. But while such lists of achievements can go a long way toward invalidating the popular notion that government is inherently incompetent, there is even better evidence available.

Read more: The Forgotten Achievements of Government


4. Jacob Weisberg, In Defense of Government (New York: Scribner, 1996), p. 32.
5. Derek Bok, The Trouble with Government (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002) p. 43.
6. Many of these government successes were adapted from Paul C. Light’s, Government’s Greatest Achievements: From Civil Rights to Homeland Security (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2002).
7. Quoted in Cass R. Sunstein, The Second Bill of Rights (New York: Basic Books, 2004) p. 15.
8. Susan Mayar and Christopher Jencks, “War On Poverty: No Apologies, Please” New York Times, November 9, 1995, op-ed page.
9. National Institute of General Medical Science, “Why Do Basic Research?” (http://www.nigms.nih.gov/news/science_ed/whydo.html#payoff), June 29, 2006

Note: This post is excerpted with permission from Government is Good, which is not affiliated with the Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI). The opinions expressed by its author do not necessarily reflect the views of EOI.

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