The Silly Longing for Small and Simple Government

Our modern-day well-being is built on both private- and public-sector institutions. We need them to be cost-effective, not inexpensive.
November 28, 2018
The Assembly Room where the U.S. Constitution was signed.
The room where the U.S. Constitution was signed. (Shutterstock)
By Richard Clay Wilson Jr.  |  Contributor
Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.

The population of the United States was less than four million when our Constitution was adopted. There was nothing remotely resembling a modern-day national government. Nor did the fledgling governments of the 13 states bear any resemblance to contemporary state government, or even to contemporary local government.

The world hasn't just changed since then; the modern world would be wholly unrecognizable to the Americans of the late 18th century. Government wasn't just smaller at our country's founding; the differences between then and now are also differences in kind. Hardly a shred of the modern-day public sector was in evidence when our country was founded.

Consider just a few truths about public goods and services as we know them. The founders gave these truths no thought whatsoever, because they had not been conceived of.

Clean air and water were in abundance then, but in the modern world they are not to be found in the absence of complex and far-reaching government regulations and standards. Food production was largely local then; everyone knew what they were consuming and where it came from, so there was no need for public-sector institutions to assure food safety and health. Transportation was rudimentary then, requiring hardly anything from government; now it is impossible to get from here to there absent contributions from a complex array of public-sector institutions. Health care and education were simple and local; today they are dependent on complex arrays of private and public goods and services.

Examples in this vein could go on for hundreds of pages. Suffice it to say that the plain, evident, and irrefutable fact of the matter is that in the modern world, however one views taxation and government, successful government is a prerequisite to breathing, drinking, eating, traveling, being healthy and being educated. Mere glances at human well-being in regard to these examples, and of course many more, serve to reveal government successes or the lack thereof. This is true not just in our country, but around the world.

Small and simple government is a thing of the past, like horses and buggies. It is well and good to romanticize the simplicity of horses and buggies, but no one really wants to return to a world in which they predominate, nor could it be done. It is every bit as silly to long for small and simple government as it is to long for horses and buggies. The world has moved on.

Moreover, the world has moved on mostly to the great advantage, not the detriment, of humankind. Indeed, the modern world has flipped the historical equation of human suffering on its head: Instead of 85 to 90 percent of people living in abject poverty, today 10 to 15 percent do. This is an absolutely extraordinary thing, which ought to tell us that the modern-day institutions of government that are integral and essential to this result should be celebrated rather than condemned. There are many reasons why people want to live in prosperous countries, but the capacity to pay for good government is one of the most important.

Casual observers of political parlance can be forgiven for thinking that the public sector is mostly about the political persuasions of those elected to office. But the public sector isn't mostly about those persuasions. The vast majority of the public sector's endeavors are about the basic necessities of life in the modern world.

Institutions of government focus on the goods and services they are responsible for providing far more than they focus on the elected officials they work for. Government's career managers, who are responsible for institutional performance, must please the elected officials they work for, but even more importantly they must see to it that the institutions they serve provide the goods and services on which the future of the country depends.

We had small, simple, and inexpensive government at its beginning, but we won't have it again. If small and simple government were to magically reappear, we would be compelled to turn it back into large, complex and expensive government in short order. We need cost-effective, not inexpensive, government. We need a rich array of public-sector goods and services to complement a rich array of private-sector goods and services.

The only possible way for any society to improve human well-being in the future is to improve in all of the activities that bear on well-being, whether those activities take place in the public or private sector. If we want to have a future that is better than the present, we will have to have more and better businesses, more and better nonprofits and more and better government too.

Government is not a necessary evil. It is a necessary good. It would be to our great collective advantage if we could learn to recognize and appreciate this evident truth.