When Government Does Good Things Poorly

When Government Does Good Things Poorly

“The state is trying to be something it isn’t.”

It is no secret that middle-class Americans are angry at the government and the general state of things. The so-called anti-establishment candidates appear to be channeling that rage to their camps.

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It is a raw undefined rage that is based more on frustrations and emotions than on concrete facts or convictions. People are depressed, for example, by an economy stalled at a disheartening 2% growth. They are constantly assaulted by the gloomy mantra that state is broken and unable to provide for the nation. Government seems to be doing nothing well.

This attitude is reflected in polls that show how the middle class is unhappy with the government. According to a recent poll by the Ripon Society, 69% of middle-class voters believe that the federal government is not doing enough for them. It is not giving them value for their tax dollars or sufficient return on investment.

Ironically, those who complain about the shortcomings of the state doubt its ability to aid them. Nearly two thirds of the same voters believe that government is part of the problem and not the solution to their woes. Yet another 59% do not believe the government is even capable of delivering solutions of any kind.

The voters are actually right on both counts. They cannot have their statist cake and eat it too. The state is certainly not satisfying everyone’s desires, nor should it. There is something in the nature of the state that prevents it from doing what these voters half-heartedly expect it to perform.

Perhaps this is the root of the whole problem. The state is trying to be something it isn’t. And when things go against their nature they cannot be expected to do anything good. As the French say about the dysfunctional state, “The good it does, is done poorly; the harm it causes, is done very well.”

The state, as it has always been defined since Aristotle, is the political organization and order of the nation. Its role is to safeguard the common good and facilitate virtuous life in common. That’s it. The government is merely the political system and institutions by which the state is administered and regulated.

The state’s end is the ordering of the common good. It is not to be the common good. It is not to provide for the common good. The state should not control the common good. Despite all the good intentions that officials might have about helping society, when it tries to do all these things, it ends up doing them poorly.

Our problem is that we have become accustomed to a state that provides goods and service that it should not be providing. We have let the modern state assume powers and absorb functions that are contrary to its nature. It has incurred massive amounts of debt to pay for its follies. This dysfunctional state has managed to do all these bad things extremely well.

What should the state be doing? The state is the supreme civil authority in the land. It should use its power to preserve and protect the overall order. It should do those things that only it can do. That means defending the nation and keeping the public order. It means establishing justice, setting standards, maintaining foreign relations, providing general direction and coordination, and fostering unity. And then, it should leave everyone and everything else alone.

The modern state tends to assume and concentrate power over every aspect of life. The “Aristotelian” state encourages the widest distribution of authority to lower social groups like the family, trade organization, town, university, or any of a number of private-sector associations that make up the rich social life of a nation. In this way, each group might accomplish its proper functions more easily without unnecessary interference. In other words, the state lets them do the good things it does poorly and concentrates on those things that it alone can do and do well.

When the state’s sovereign power stays within its limits, less force and money are needed to maintain it. People are willing to sacrifice and even die to defend the nation, as our brave soldiers historically have given testimony. When the state abuses its power, as it now does, it becomes a great straitjacket to force strict compliance to the law. It no longer facilitates virtuous life in common. The common good is shattered into myriad self-interest groups that seek to play the system for all its worth.

Changing all this takes effort on the part of citizens and there is little indication that many are willing to forgo their benefits or ROI on tax dollars. It assumes that people actually want to live virtuously in our morally decadent times. There are few signs that people are willing to look beyond self-interest and show any interest in the common good. However, the breakdown of the present dysfunctional state may leave us with little choice in the matter. When that happens, we must have the courage to freely return to a virtuous order in which the state assumes its proper role of doing what it should do well. Until then, we can only expect a hypertrophied government that succeeds in doing “good” things poorly.


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