In recent election cycles Republicans have attempted to illuminate the choice that voters’ faced as one of big government versus small government. The line of thought is exemplified by an Ayers-McHenry poll from 2009 which asked the question, “Overall, would you prefer larger government with more services and higher taxes, or smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes?” In response, 21 percent favored the former, while 69 percent preferred the latter response.
Unfortunately, this often created more confusion than clarity. Polls regularly showed that voters favored smaller government and spending reductions in the abstract, but generally opposed cuts when they were spelled out and contextualized. That led both Republicans and Democrats to think they were winning the battle of ideas, when in fact it was a stalemate.
Big thinkers like Rep. Paul Ryan and the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks attempted to move away from thinking of government in quantitative terms, and more in qualitative ones.
“What we must choose is our aspiration, not whether we want to zero out the state. Nobody wants to privatize the Army or take away Grandma’s Social Security check,” they wrote in 2010. “However, finding the right level of government for Americans is simply impossible unless we decide which ideal we prefer: a free enterprise society with solid but limited safety net, or a cradle-to-grave, redistribute welfare state.”
Donald Trump has attempted to simplify things a step further. Rather than make a wholesale decision on the direction of government, let’s coalesce around the idea that what Washington does do, should work. Entrepreneur Peter Thiel explains this well in the Washington Post:
Lost between the two extremes is the vast majority of citizens’ common-sense expectation that the country’s transportation, health care and defense systems should actually work. As a result of both parties ignoring competence while they fight over money, today we have the broken D.C. Metro system, the hobbled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and justified public skepticism of government health care.
The establishment doesn’t want to admit it, but Trump’s heretical denial of Republican dogma about government incapacity is exactly what we need to move the party — and the country — in a new direction. For the Republican Party to be a credible alternative to the Democrats’ enabling, it must stand for effective government, not for giving up on government.
I believe that effective government will require less bureaucracy and less rulemaking; we may need to have fewer public servants, and we might need to pay some of them more. At a minimum, we should recognize that success cannot be reduced to the overall size of the budget: Spending money and solving problems are not the same thing.
It’s not crazy to believe that the government can be effective. Thiel uses the example of the Manhattan project, which coordinated the work of 130,000 people in a dozen states to build the world’s first atomic bomb in less than four years. Similarly, the federal government organized thousands of men working around the clock to temporarily move the Colorado River, pour 4.4. million cubic yards of concrete, and build the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. All told it came in two years ahead of schedule and under budget.
Today, by comparison, the government spends years building a website to purchase health insurance, only to see it crash on the first day it goes live. Today, it takes the government about two-and-a-half times as long to replace escalators in a Metro stop as it did to build the entire Empire State Building.
This dysfunction shows that Hillary Clinton’s plans for a massive expansion of government is wildly off base. The government simply has no business attempting to manage a complex, ever-changing health care market when it can’t even manage a Post Office branch. But it also shows that the areas where government does play a proper role need a dose of common sense, not an immediate injection of more taxpayer cash.
Trump embraces that middle ground. He ignores the buildup of precedent and decorum and instead demands prudence and rationality. Citizens expect their government to work. Currently, it doesn’t. That’s not something that a lifelong government employee can fix, that’s a job for a businessman who isn’t afraid to say “you’re fired.”