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Government Shouldn’t Do It All (Even If It Could)

December 16, 2010 - 4:52pm CST

These days, government is everywhere. Big. Burdensome. Pervasive. Lines for standing, regulations for following, taxes for paying. Though this is our reality, it wasn’t what our country’s forefathers had in mind. In fact, they wanted something entirely different.

Having fled England to escape tyranny, our country’s founders set out to craft a government whose purposes and reach were limited. As stated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, each person possesses a natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The purpose of government, then, is to secure these inalienable rights -- and nothing more. Indeed, each of the goals listed in the Preamble to the Constitution is meant to serve the purpose of securing these basic rights.

The Founders sought to create a nation of limited government, a nation of personal liberty and personal responsibility. They did not intend to create a behemoth, a nanny state, another government of tyranny. To do this, they fashioned the government around the concept of federalism: limited, central authority, with specific (a.k.a. enumerated) powers. Everything else was left to the states (i.e., the people).

Fast forward to the present day: We have central authority, but it’s anything but limited. I wonder if our founders imagined their circumscribed government would someday be made up of almost 2.15 million full-time federal employees. (That’s full time and federal, folks. It doesn’t count the military or the roughly 600,000 employees of the United States Postal Service.) Did they think that the government would become the largest national employer? Did they imagine a cabinet with 15 executive departments or that there would be so many federal agencies that most of them were unheard of by the average citizen? What would they think of the fact that federal employees (i.e., civil servants) earned an average of $123,000 in 2009, more than double the private average of $61,000?

Regardless of whether any of our founders imagined a government this expansive, is today’s government justifiable? In other words, just because the government can do something, does that mean it should do something? Shouldn’t the private sector handle all of the jobs that are not the ones that serve the most basic purposes of government? (Even some of those might be better suited for the private sector.)

One could highlight the immensity of government from a number of angles, such as focusing on the number and amount of taxes collected, the number and demands of myriad government regulations (local, state, and national), or the amount of government spending. For my purposes, however, a focus on the range of jobs that the government performs is instructive. The alphabet soup of (taxpayer-funded) government agencies is dizzying, but a look at a few is illustrative of our overgrown public sector.

Do we really need the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel (a group of volunteers that “listens to taxpayers, identifies taxpayers’ issues, and makes suggestions for improving IRS service and customer satisfaction”)? Seems like the best advocacy for taxpayers is just to tax them less, but that’s for another day. Or if taxpayers need help, there are plentiful private options: accountants, tax lawyers, the internet, consumer-advocacy groups, and non-profits. Or just call American Tax Relief, and “tell them Pat Summerall sent you.” Don’t miss the irony: Our tax dollars (just under $3.5 million per year) fund a group that helps us work through problems we have with the tax-collecting arm of our government. Go figure.

We also fund the Commission on Fine Arts, “a permanent body to advise the government on matters pertaining to the arts,” to the tune of $10 million per year, and we dole out $167.5 million annually for the National Endowment for the Arts “to support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities.” Isn’t that what artists, galleries, and museums do? Likewise, $167.5 million per year to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which “serves and strengthens our Republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans.” Don’t teachers (public and private), historians, and writers have that covered? 

One of my personal favorites: the Federal Consulting Group, an operation of the Department of the Interior, “made up of career (emphasis added) federal executives who have extensive experience in managing major programs and working with senior agency leaders in areas such as process improvement, strategic planning, creative approaches to problem solving, executive coaching, leadership development, and customer and employee satisfaction.” Last I checked, consulting is a pretty popular private-sector occupation that is not suffering from a lack of supply. And private consultants must produce results, or they’ll no longer be consulted (i.e., paid). My guess is that FCG employees keep earning their taxpayer-funded paychecks, regardless of how their advisees fare.

Would there be a vacuum of people willing to serve in other countries without the federally funded Peace Corps? Philanthropists, church mission trips, and alternative spring breaks serve causes overseas, with no government funding, so why do twentysomethings need $400 million each year to lend a hand?

Should the government be in the business of providing international broadcasting services? Should we be doling out almost $770 million per year to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the international news outlets Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Alhurra, Radio Sawa, and Radio Marti? Putting aside the question of whether our government should be in this business, do we really need to hand over three-quarters of a billion dollars each year to fund it? Surely private media, social media, non-profits, and non-governmental organizations -- or even just people with internet connections -- could fill at least some of this niche, without feeding from the government trough.

And last but not least, our U.S. Postal Service. The USPS traces its roots to the Postal Clause of the U.S. Constitution, so there is no doubt the U.S. can be in the postal business, but should they be? They lost $3.8 billion last year and, according to United Press International, “could lose $238 billion over the next decade.” If UPS, FedEx, or DHL saw those numbers, we would, unlike the USPS, no longer see those companies. If their customers had to endure snail-pace lines, those customers would eventually stop getting in those lines. Private employees might take their 15-minute breaks when the lines died down, instead of at the appointed time, no matter what. Taxpayers would no longer be paying the tab for cushy government retirements and offices in the communities throughout the country that can’t justify them, financially. In big cities and unincorporated towns alike, private mail carriers would compete for customers, and the race would help everyone’s bottom line.

Though the private sector could perform some jobs currently handled by the government, many will ask what’s the harm of having the government perform them? Plenty. What is lost by government’s handling what could be handled in the private marketplace? All of the things the private sector seeks, in order to turn a profit: cost savings, innovation, and efficiency, to name a few. The government is not accountable to the market, never needing to turn a profit to survive. Business decisions are not determined by supply and demand, and competition is not there to breed success.

If a private employer isn’t profitable, his days are numbered. Again, results matter. If the government doesn’t turn a profit, taxpayers are their safety net. Built-in pay raises, more programs, more initiatives, annual appropriations. The nature of private enterprise is to economize, to streamline, to maximize efficiency; while the nature of government is to expand, to drum up business. On its current course, government will continue to aggrandize.

The legitimate government functions and many dedicated, talented government workers notwithstanding, today’s government in no way resembles the government our Founding Fathers intended for us. They laid the foundation for a government to serve minimally, to protect our natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The government should stick to the basics, and leave the rest to the people. We the People deserve no less.

A graduate of the Harvard Law School, Drew Thornley is an independent public-policy analyst, adjunct and part-time university lecturer, and licensed attorney.