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Why government is so hard to reform

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Why is it so difficult to reform government? The easy answers are well-known. Too many people depend on it for Social Security checks and other benefits. Too many businesses profit from its contracts, subsidies and tax breaks. Any reform means pain for someone. And, of course, politicians get elected by delivering its services.

But there is a more fundamental reason: It’s how we think about government. Reform is assumed to mean only improving the efficiency and effectiveness of existing programs. Reduce cost here; streamline a process there, and all is well. The default position is that if a problem exists, even if it is caused by government itself, the only viable solution is more regulation and spending — i.e., more government.

That was the mistake of Obamacare. Government had already regulated and controlled America’s health care industry for decades. Much of the exorbitant costs and inefficiencies were due to a lack of competition caused by government. The insurance industry was heavily regulated as well. And yet the culprit was supposed to be the private insurance companies and the doctors who somehow were thought to be purely private actors.

The double-down strategy makes an appearance in the debate over income inequality, too. President Obama and others assume that inequality exists because of an insufficient distribution of income by the government. Yet its most direct cause is the failure of schools, families, and civil institutions to educate and to provide support for lower income people.

In each of these instances government failure is involved. The welfare state has contributed to the decline of the American family in lower-income neighborhoods, which is a major cause of poverty in America. And our public schools are not giving our children the skills and knowledge they need to compete in the market place.

All of this to say it matters a great deal where you start in the debate on government. If you assume that what is must be forever, then naturally you cannot imagine a world any different. Even trying to limit the growth of federal spending is condemned as “utopian” and “radical.” The natural trajectory for progressives is always toward more government. It can no more be stopped than gravity can be defied. Those who want to limit government are dismissed as “haters,” as if they were little more than closet anarchists eager to blow up the state. Thus limiting government — the actual principle of doing so for some higher cause — is not merely lost but denigrated as not worthy of serious consideration.

But there is a value to limiting government. And we will never be able to have a responsible reform program unless we admit it. The value is not merely to understand all the philosophical reasons articulated by Thomas Jefferson and other Founders — that limited government is necessary to preserve liberty. Or that constitutional government, as understood by the Founders, is by definition limited government. Nor is it only to save money or avoid budgetary collapse, as crucial as those things are.

Rather, it is that we will never approach government reform from the right direction otherwise. If you assume there is no value whatsoever to actually reducing regulations, lowering spending and limiting the scope of government, then you will only get more of the same. No amount of tinkering at the edges will make any difference. The fundamentals will remain in place no matter what you do, and any failure can always be blamed on insufficient will or too little money spent on the good of the cause.

This is not a plea to dismantle government, but to recognize that it must be limited if it is to be effective at what it should do. That’s where true government reform begins. It is no more utopian to want to reform government in this way than it was for Mr. Obama to “transform” it by dramatically expanding it.

 - Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in The Washington Times

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