Performance, Not “Size” Is What Matters

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Guy Molyneux, Ruy Teixeira, and John Whaley describe some new survey research related to CAP’s “Doing What Works” initiative:

Public confidence in government is at an all-time low, according to a major new survey commissioned by the Center for American Progress. And yet clear majorities of Americans of all ages want and expect more federal involvement in priority areas such as energy, poverty, and education, the poll found.

The key lesson embedded in these seemingly paradoxical results: Americans want a federal government that is better, not smaller. CAP’s new research shows people would rather improve government performance than reduce its size. And they are extremely receptive to reform efforts that would eliminate inefficient government programs, implement performance-based policy decisions, and adopt modern management methods and information technologies.

I don’t really find this all that paradoxical. I’ve heard plenty of people complain about long lines at the DMV, but I’ve never heard anyone say “it’s too bad 9 year-olds can’t drive legally.” What’s interesting is that public intuition on this point appears to track serious research—high quality government is strongly correlated with economic prosperity whereas “big” or “small” government are not. In other words, size doesn’t matter nearly so much as what you do with it.

Unfortunately, political obsession with the budget deficit tends to lead to a myopic focus on the budgetary cost of this or that rather than the social cost, which is much more important. Another problem is that the political forces in this country who are most attuned to problems with the functioning of government programs seem to have little interest in actually improving them. Instead you get this odd “MMS isn’t doing its job right and therefore we shouldn’t try” attitude that I find very frustrating.