When Government Gets it Right

October 18, 2010

In an atmosphere of 24/7 government-bashing and Tea Party cries of shrinking government, too seldom do we acknowledge the successes that we as a nation have accomplished when we take collective action, through our democratic process, to address great and pressing challenges.

As I sat down Sunday morning to read the Boston Globe, there on the front page was a powerful story about the success of the Clean Air Act. The article, entitled “A Clear Water Revival,” told the story of the Clean Air Act passed in 1989, and how it succeeded in dramatically reducing acid rain over the past 20 years since its passage.

In short, we saw a challenge, we took decisive action as one nation, and we turned a bad situation around! There's still more work to do, but it was a clear success. There was a great map on the front of the print edition of the Globe, but I couldn't find it online. I found a comparable map from the EPA which is copied below. It tracks "sulfate deposition" over time, one of the key measures of acid rainfall.

US EPA map

The Clean Air Act is one of the great examples of succesful collective action and government intervention, but it’s not the only one. A similar story has told about how we stopped the hole in the ozone from growing, through both national and international action.

Of course, the successes are not limited to environmental issues. Growing up in South Louisiana, I benefitted from many of the public structures that were created and funded through our tax dollars. One of the most direct reminders I had of this was when I was in college at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). The heart of the campus was built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the New Deal job creation programs, with WPA plaques on every building to remind us of this fact.

When my wife and I got married 12 years ago, we did so in Norris Dam State Park, just north of Knoxville, Tennessee. The lodge we held our reception in, and all the cabins we rented for our visiting family, were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), yet another New Deal program that put Americans to work producing lasting public spaces and structures that are still with us today. We stayed in another CCC cabin for our honeymoon in the mountains of Virginia.

Of course, the list goes on with notable public successes like the GI Bill that helped returning veterans buy homes and attend college, the Social Security program that ended the devastating poverty many faced in their senior years, and public research that effectively ended debilitating diseases that once ravaged this nation. Though none of these programs are perfect, and some such as the GI Bill were tainted by the racial injustices of their time, they demonstrate the positive change we can make when we act collectively.

Amidst all these public responses, there has often been a role for market solutions, but that role should be kept in context. In the Boston Globe story, part of the success of the Clean Water Act was attributed to the cap and trade program that allowed market forces to find the most cost effective and efficient way to comply with the new standards. However, the standards and rules were still set through government action. Without that leadership and the high standards we as a people set, market forces would have had little incentive to solve the problem.

Despite all the hype about market solutions to public problems, and the cries for smaller government (coming from Tea Partiers and the like), we cannot afford to abdicate the role of a strong public sector when facing big problems. It is when we act collectively, through a democratic and accountable government, that we are best equipped to solve the big challenges of our time.

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