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Time to Roll Back the Big Lie of Smaller Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
April 7, 2015

In a recent communiqué to ASPA members, outgoing ASPA President Allan Rosenbaum discussed the need for ASPA to return to the mission of being, “a vigorous advocate for a strong and effective public sector.” There is no doubt that the U.S. federal government needs such advocacy.
It has become commonplace to talk about the “hollowed-out” state in which federal agencies have had their workforces and capacities significantly eroded by decades of brutal congressional fights over their programs and budgets. Crucial operational capacities now are supplied by a legion of private contractors. At the same time, getting key federal appointments confirmed in the U.S. Senate has slowed to the point that it constitutes a theater of the absurd instead of reasonable due process. Many cabinet departments go  months or even years deprived of necessary leadership. This has caused undue politicization of the more visible federal leadership positions and the substitution of private for public employees, all resulting in a lack of transparency and accountability that further erodes public confidence in the government.

One of the most recent examinations of this process is John Dilulio’s 2014 book, Bring Back the Bureaucrats. It makes a powerful case for rebuilding the internal capacity of the federal government to do its job and I recommend it as priority reading.

Erik april

However, we are not going to succeed in this effort without directly confronting how we got to this point and pushing back. The most crucial event was Ronald Reagan’s dramatic announcement in his first inaugural address that, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Reagan’s subsequent efforts to use the full capacity of the federal government to confront the Soviet Union indicate that he did not believe a word of it.

Reagan’s statement was a reaction against the ability of the federal government to rewrite the social structure of the U.S. as demonstrated during the Civil Rights Movement (and echoed in history by the post-Civil War reconstruction). The federal government can solve difficult problems and it can vastly enhance social equity. It was fear of that incredible power that generated the misplaced attack on government in 1981. Continued fear of that power remains the source of so much political infighting about the federal government ever since.

Pushing back: There are people who would seek to disable the federal government. However, the very premise of their attack on government is false.

The primitive, 19th century view of “limited government,” which is at the core of that attack, is wholly inappropriate for a world that has become so complicated. What is especially disingenuous about proponents of that outdated view of the public sector is that the U.S. bears a large share of responsibility for our world being complex, whether we are talking about nuclear weapons, international trade and economics, uncontrolled immigration, conflicts over energy resources, global climate change or growing inequities in income and wealth.

Point two: Our world is far too complicated. It is no longer acceptable to beat down the federal government to the point that it cannot pursue our national interest or fulfill our responsibilities to the global community.

Finally, to those Americans who take pride in vociferous attacks on their own government, the whole world is watching. Everything that occurs in the U.S. is subject to intense scrutiny in every other country. It matters that some in the U.S. appear intent on disabling our government by denying it leadership and undermining its capacity to act. It sends a signal to those around the world who make it their goal to weaken and eventually destroy the U.S. that we Americans very well may be willing to accomplish those ends through suicide.

Point three: America’s position on the world stage makes it truly unwise to believe we can behave this way toward the federal government without engendering very bad results internationally.

I close with this final thought. What label do you have for those who favor the weakening of their government to the point that we  appear vulnerable to our enemies? I have a word for it, a harsh but apropos word. Maybe you have your own. I think we should start using those words in public to sweep those who have joyfully hollowed out our state into the remote corner where they belong.


Author: Erik Devereux has over 20 years of experience in the public policy and management field and is currently an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations and to higher education. He can be reached at [email protected]american.edu.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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