What Government Does Well/What Government Does Badly
By William Weld
Liberals often don't see the problems, and conservatives don't see the promise, of government.
THE PROMISE OF GOVERNMENT
THE PROTECTION, AND PURSUIT, OF PROPERTY
Homo economus-economic man-is a very avaricious individual, a real allosaurus. If he could have it all, he would, and that would be at the expense of others. So government acts as a safeguard of our property.
But we also want government to help us better our lot, to act as an economic catalyst. When I was the governor of Massachusetts, we used taxpayers' money to stimulate growth in biotech and telecommunications, two high-end industries that were tailor-made for the state because of all the universities. I was roundly criticized from the right for violating Republican dogma by trying to pick winners and losers. My retort was there was not a sufficient supply of capital in the market in those days, so government had a legitimate role in stepping in to address what I saw as a market failure.
The system that had grown up in most states is that wealthy districts with an affluent population can afford to spend a lot more on their public school systems than the poorer districts. I always thought that the huge disparities in local funding violated state constitutions, which guarantee citizens a quality education no matter where they live in the state. The New Jersey Supreme Court thought the same thing, as eventually the Massachusetts Supreme Court did too. But this was after we had already put in a statutory scheme of spreading the wealth around with a redistributive formula for financing education that went as far as was politically feasible: You have to get the votes in the Legislature. My Secretary of Education at the time was a woman, a native Cuban, who had been in the hills of Cuba with Fidel and Che in 1958. The joke around the statehouse was that this was the most Communist piece of legislation sponsored by a Republican administration in a long time.
LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
The courts are truly the least dangerous of the three branches of our government. It's hard to believe that sometimes when you read some Supreme Court cases; Justice Scalia's opinions read as though he took them straight down from the burning bush, and that just makes me nervous. But over the decades and over the centuries, the court's function has been essentially corrective, and in that sense I think that they are the least dangerous branch.
I think government has a major role to play in helping us with the pursuit of happiness. There are several such issues where I have departed radically from the Republican orthodoxy. One is the environment, or conservation, which is fundamental to human happiness. Natural resources are so vast that no single individual or business is going to protect them; they don't have an incentive to.
The creation of a Water Resources Authority to clean up the Boston harbor happened partly because of a suit I filed when I was US Attorney in 1983 against the State of Mass, saying this harbor is too damn dirty. That's one of the things I'm proudest of in my tenure as US Attorney. One of the things I'm least proud about is that I chickened out and never filed the suit against Ohio for public nuisance on account of the air blowing Northeast on the prevailing winds to Massachusetts. It is unlikely to have been approved in Washington, but it would have been interesting to try.
There's an alliance in the environmental area, and an appropriate one, between the government and the little guy. We absolutely have to restrain concentrations of wealth in industry from spoiling the situation for everybody. The legal constraint on this is the Takings Clause in the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution. There are a million cases on what constitutes the taking of private property. It's a matter of degree. In the Western part of this country, the property rights advocates think the government is riding roughshod over them. By and large I come down on the side of government assertiveness in that area.
Another area in which I depart from Republican orthodoxy is on workforce issues. I thought it was madness for the Republicans during the first Bush administration to be opposed to the Family Leave Act. This was just government enacting support for the way the workforce has changed.
BRINGING OUT THE ANGELS, BRINGING US TOGETHER
This is especially true in the international arena. My great and good friend Jesse Helms is an enormously exclusionary man; he wants to surround himself with people just like himself. A high ranking United Nations official told me a couple of years ago that Senator Helms had said to him, that the U.N.'s purpose was to sap the national fiber and resolve of the United States. It was almost a line out of Dr. Strangelove, about sapping the precious bodily fluids of the United States. Unlike Senator Helms, I think a proper role for government-and a major achievement-would be to contribute to a sense of community internationally.
A shared sense of purpose was always my credo when I was a manager in government, and it is my credo now when I am a manager in the private sector. There is nothing better to meld an organization and melt away divisions. Some have been very good at establishing this, some have been very bad. Bill Clinton is very good at it. Richard Nixon, I thought, was very bad. Franklin Roosevelt was probably the best ever.
THE PROBLEMS OF GOVERNMENT
There are areas where the government is not terribly helpful
TAXATION AS THEFT, SOCIAL SECURITY AS A BASTION ABOUT TO FALL
Managing from a distance, from Washington, is not a great role of government for a country this big and this disparate.
I don't understand the Democrats' approach to Social Security in this country, and I'm not alone. It's being chipped away at, and I think it's a bastion that's going to fall. It may not seem that way to some, but it didn't look that way when the conservatives took after the welfare system either. People said: "you don't understand, this is inevitable, this is the way it's been ever since 1935." That's not forever, and I think you will see the same kind of flip on Social Security.
TOO MUCH ADMINISTERING IN EDUCATION, HEALTH, ETC.
It's not good for government to tell people that the world owes them a living and that things are free. My predecessor, Governor Dukakis, used to like to tell a story that during his first administration, eyeglasses were free under Medicaid, and the consumption of eyeglasses in Massachusetts was six pairs per year for every man, woman, child and beast. Even animals were all wearing glasses. But then they put on a little co-pay, three dollars for a pair of eyeglasses, and the consumption dropped 86 percent. I am sure there is a lesson in there somewhere.
GOVERNMENT AS MONOPOLY, AND PRIVATIZATION
SEX AND THE SINGLE GOVERNMENT
TRADE AND IMMIGRATION
THE INFLUENCE OF MONEY IN POLITICS
GOVERNMENT IS THE PEOPLE
Former Massachusetts GovernorWilliam Weld, now a private attorney for McDermott, Will and Emery based in New York, plans to re-enter public life in the future, perhaps running for governor of New York in 2006, though "I have lost any desire to be a United States Senator." This essay is adapted from a speech delivered at a breakfast forum sponsored by Citizens Union on June 21st.
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