It is quite possible that we are in the midst of a shift in our national zeitgeist, and our long reliance on government as the righter of all wrongs, creator of all good, and overseer of all activities might be coming to a halting end. Faith in government has, of course, always ebbed and flowed as regularly as the seasons; however, there are certainly three basic functions that, except in time of national emergency, have been the bread and butter of all governance since the founding of our nation.
First, government has been ideally positioned to spearhead improvements to infrastructure that drove our shift from a rural to an industrial economy and helped multiple our national wealth. Government built—or helped to build—the dams, canals, railroads, highways, bridges, water systems, and power grids that have made so much of our modern life possible, and we should be eternally grateful to those who made this possible.
Moreover, there is no doubt that generations of Americans have used government to pursue a more perfect union. Prodded by the passions of citizens who looked about and saw grave injustices that screamed for remedies, government provided the mechanism for changes that lifted the yoke of oppression from untold millions. It is almost impossible to believe that it once was legal to own a human being or deny women the right to vote in our nation, and the transformations in our laws that have been forced upon sometimes unwilling elected officials to end these and many other national disgraces are a marvel.
Finally, government has acted as an important central repository of knowledge and disseminated this information through its various agents. Local agricultural officers drove out to your farm and helped to devise new ways to improve crop quality and yield. Public libraries made books available to all. Massive government archives and databases chronicled the economic, political, and social life of our nation and worked to make this content as readily available as paper-based systems allowed.
However, it may very well be the case that circumstances have changed a bit.
The critical infrastructure of the 21st century economy is now being built by countless businesses both large and small, and more and more of our traditional infrastructure—except for the spectacularly degraded roads, tunnels, and bridges still being overseen by government—is being overlaid by privately-operated systems. Government officials are racing to catch up with seismic changes in attitudes and beliefs that are being driven by citizens armed with the megaphone and magnifying glass offered by the Internet. As for government as a repository and disseminator of information, I can signal the vast change with a single word: Google.
None of this is to say that government officials are not busily dreaming up new missions to carry out. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are now directed by elected officials to protect us by spying on everything we do with breathtaking disregard for our most cherished rights. Overwhelmed by light-speed changes in technology, regulators often are the last to know that the world has left them behind while they enforce outdated rules that are designed to protect legacy businesses at the expense of needed innovation. Most recently, in order to ensure our good health, brilliant bureaucrats have launched a ham-handed takeover of our private insurance marketplace that will help fewer than promised at a long-term cost that, if the history of government programs is any guide, will exceed even the most pessimistic projections.
All of which begs this question: Are traditional governmental structures an artifact of a time now past, and are the inexorable changes brought about by innovative drive of the private sector reducing many government programs to overly expensive—and perhaps actively damaging—appendages of the body politic?
It is impossible to think of a sector of our lives that is not reinventing itself with breathtaking speed and bringing daily benefits that once seemed the stuff of science fiction. How we work, how we learn, how we relax, and every facet of our lives in between is no longer the same as it was a scant decade ago. Even writing this commentary on my iPad between checking my email and reading several newspapers—all while waiting for my wife to finish her dental appointment—is a simple example of the awesome breadth of the technological changes that are helping to push government out of the central role it has occupied in our lives for so long.
Indeed, one has to now wonder whether the volumes of rules and regulations that govern our daily existence sometimes do anything more than provide a lot of well-paying jobs for career bureaucrats and appointees who would otherwise have to test their marketability elsewhere. There are still many government paychecks to be earned by providing the important basic services that improve our health, safety, and general welfare; however, much more money (this being the money being rapidly removed from the wallets of every taxpayer) is to be made monitoring, managing, and mangling the daily lives of Americans who are often too weary to even work up much outrage about the cost and inconvenience.
Government was at one time the only mechanism available to provide a wide variety of benefits and information; the tables have, in many instances, been turned by instantaneous global communication, amazingly inexpensive computing technology, and an incredible array of free or cheap services available via the Web. The next time we are asked for an increase in taxes or fees to pay for some expensive new program, service, or construction project, perhaps we should ask whether we need or want it—and also whether government is even the best avenue available to fulfill that particular need in this modern age. This pointed inquiry alone may help to hack away at the trillions upon trillions of dollars of public debt now hanging like a millstone around all of our necks.
Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) February 23, 2014