Get Rid of Government! (But Then What?)

We should just dismantle the government.

We don’t trust the people who work in government. We don’t believe that they are committed to being good stewards of our tax money. And we generally feel as if they are incompetent and incapable of performing at levels of excellence that would in any way allow us to indicate satisfaction with their services.
That’s the American citizen profile painted by a report released by the Pew Research Center yesterday entitled “Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor.” From the overview:

By almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days. A new Pew Research Center survey finds a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government — a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.
Rather than an activist government to deal with the nation’s top problems, the public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its power curtailed. With the exception of greater regulation of major financial institutions, there is less of an appetite for government solutions to the nation’s problems — including more government control over the economy — than there was when Barack Obama first took office.

But this really begs another question:

If we don’t want civil servants to address our top problems, then who do we want to provide these same services and information that we rely upon for the effective functioning of society?

Which sector do we trust more?

Private sector? We might be able to trust the ability to deliver on performance elements, but have profit-driven companies really captured the public’s imagination as the entities we’d want to be responsible for the common good?

Non-profit sector? These organizations have a similar mindset and mission to government, oriented toward public service, but how long would we wait and at what cost to transfer resources from one sector to another?

Academia? Tremendous research, development and innovation comes from our nation’s academic institutions, but isn’t it a stretch to think that they are equipped to manage the broader operations and infrastructure now handled by government?

To be fair, the Pew report does indicate that

the public also expresses discontent with many of the country’s other major institutions. Just 25% say the federal government has a positive effect on the way things are going in the country and about as many (24%) say the same about Congress. Yet the ratings are just as low for the impact of large corporations (25% positive) and banks and other financial institutions (22%). And the marks are only slightly more positive for the national news media (31%), labor unions (32%) and the entertainment industry (33%).

The report goes on to say that people who are upset with government are typically angry at other societal institutions.

So maybe people just like to complain.

But I’d like to hear these same survey respondents answer this question:

If not government, then who?

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That’s a very good question.

To me, it’s not clear who we trust more:
-My guess non-profits

Part of my hypothesis – Citizens like complaining about government in the way that people like complaining about their boss. There’s no way to be the boss and have everyone like you – but ways to get more people to like you and gain respect.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Harlan – But did you answer the question? If not government, then who? I didn’t see an alternative suggestion. 🙂

Patrick Quinn

“Government” or “no government” is a false choice. This survey (and others like it) can’t credibly be used to bolster an argument to dismantle government. They can–and should–be used to support a movement to reformgovernment.

“Change” is the most overworked word of the new millenium and has probably already passed “Gov 2.0” in the empty-of-logical-content sweepstakes; it is nonetheless the case that the only thing that will restore the public’s confidence is real, substantive, effective institutional change. Which means a government that doesn’t look like this one, a government that doesn’t do things the way this government does things and that doesn’t employ all the same people this government employs. The impetus for that change will certainly come from someplace other than government, but the people who comprise this government can have a large effect on the scope of the discussion.

I will keep beating this drum until the end of time: The only social media that will have any long-term effect on the shape and function of American government is social media that faces out of the agency to the general public. All the rest of it is just conference-fodder, and will do nothing whatever to restore the public’s confidence.

Lisa Nelson

I think a lot of the mistrust stems from the government doing a poor job of communicating what the citizen gets for their tax dollars. Europeans spend more money on taxes and don’t complain, however, they know what their tax dollars go for, free universities, health care, maternity leave whatever. Check out Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish. What would you cut to balance the budget.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Harlan – No limitations on choices…and your answers are great – also, no complaining here, only compliments. 🙂 I understand that you are not calling for the elimination of government, but for a more reliable, accountable government. Point granted. So let’s imagine that trust in government has eroded to such a degree that we needed to phase out our government as we know it – what would you do to replace government employees to perform the same societal functions?

@Jean-Paul – Sounds like you’ve been watching too much “V”. Ha!

@Patrick – Similar question that I posed to Harlan. I agree that it’s about reform vs. removal. But what do you envision for a structural renewal? Also, social media can be used to improve government-to-citizen communication…and it can be a tool to transform the structure of government by way of internal and inter-agency communication. So I’m not sure it’s just facing out….but also changing the face that government sees in the mirror.

@Lisa – Your comment seems to tie into Patrick’s thoughts. Government needs to do a better job of communicating to and with the public. Like the involvement of citizens in the hard choices faced by government (i.e. the balanced budget challenge) to gain input and reveal the challenges.

Patrick Quinn

Government on all levels is adopting comms tools that will over time make the agency more effective at its self-perceived mission–despite the fact that surveys like this one suggest that we’re missing the mark in terms of citizen satisfaction. Doing more of what we’re doing, but doing it more “efficiently” or “better,” doesn’t meet the need.

I don’t blame for government for this. Government should be adopting all these tools, and agencies should be striving toward more efficient performance. It’s the people who are missing the boat–with some help from us. We can’t know what we should see in the mirror until the people tell us. My frustration lies with government’s programmatic approach to these questions: Our program doesn’t include the great mass of American citizens.

Once we cut through all the marketing BS, most SM tools are built to help the user attract and maintain an audience. Overwhelmingly, government applies these tools to attracting and maintaining an audience of other government employees. Critical, essential elements of the answer lie outside government, but government isn’t looking outside government.

Bobby Caudill

Speaking from one citizen’s point of view, and in answer to your question Andy, I DO want government to address the top problems of our country, however, I want them to address the problems from the people’s point of view. Not from a particular party’s point of view, not from any particular special interest group or industry, but from the POV of the real, hard-working, contributing citizens of this country.

I have the honor to work with many career civil servants in my chosen field and I am, far more often that not, impressed with the level of dedication to our country, it’s people and to the services they provide. However, this sentiment does not seem to carry through to many of our elected officials who, at least as they are represented by the information sources available to me, seem more interested in appeasing each other rather than the general public. Of course, I know I am generalizing, and that there are honorable, capable, elected officials out there…..

I tend to believe that as a society, we’ve allowed a ruling class to develop in this country, people who are groomed from birth to be politicians. They come from the right families, go to the right schools and are connected to all the right people. Now, I realize that the world is a far different place than it was in 1776, and many of today’s problems cannot be solved with a ‘part-time’ focus, but, I truly do not believe our founding fathers envisioned our elected public servants to be professional politicians either, many who, in my opinion, have minimal or no practical, real world experience in solving the problems we are facing today.

In the spirit of offering something to discuss, perhaps, as a country, we should be looking at ways to attract a different class of people into elected positions that have real experience solving hard problems. Being the college debate team champion, coming from the right family and possessing the skill to deliver a pre-written speech with charisma is simply not enough.

I know my comments may sound a bit cynical, but, I do try to be positive, I vote and do what I can to be heard, however, I feel my voice (as well as those of most individuals) is drowned out or ignored as irrelevant.

As Harlan pointed out below, I really don’t wish to choke on what being forced down my throat by a government who believes it knows my needs better than I do, I want a government who cares enough to hear me and is open enough to present options to me in a clear and concise manner so that I can have an informed opinion. Stop assuming I can’t handle the truth.

OK, was that over the top? 🙂

Dan Gephart

Who do the respondents to this survey like? I love Kinky Friedman’s take on government. “I’m not for big government or small government; I’m for efficient government, government that works for the people.”

Sheryl Grant

I read the report and took the quiz, and thought the question about reform was too simple. Gov 2.0 is a form of reform, but the way the question is phrased, if you thought the gov needed major return, that would imply distrust. Whereas I suspect that isn’t the sentiment among people pushing for Open Gov:

The federal government needs very major reform
The federal government is basically sound and needs only some reform
The federal government doesn’t need much change at all

I also thought the following quote was interesting:

“Despite the frustration most Americans feel with government, a majority of the public (56%) says that if they had a child just getting out of school they would like to see him or her pursue a career in government; and 70% say the government is a good place to work, unchanged from October 1997….And while 56% say they would like their child to pursue a career in government, far fewer (36%) say the same about their child making a career in politics.”

I wonder how the responses would be different if they used “public servant” instead of “government.”

If this survey had been done around the Great Depression, what would the comparisons be like? I think it’s misleading to compare 1997 to 2010. I would also like to see the questions measure what kinds of media the survey respondents use to follow what the government does, and how they practice citizenship. If someone who doesn’t vote, attend town hall meetings, etc., distrusts government, to me that is different than someone who comments on rulemaking, or someone who participates actively as a citizen.

I guess I don’t trust the survey results 🙂

Marco Morales

I believe that Woodrow Wilson, considered to be the father of public administration, first formally recognized public administration in an 1887 article entitled, “The Study of Administration.” The future president wrote that “it is the object of administrative study to discover, first, what government can properly and successfully do, and, secondly, how it can do these proper things with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or of energy.” If not people like us to make our government run, the public servant (or civil servant in most circles of government), then we’d have privatized entities engaging in all types of commercial ventures which would eventually and likely compromise national security. You have to remember that quite a bit of what government does in this country is for the common good and protection of its citizens. The public policy process complements everything written in our Constitution and it is up to the elected legislators to ensure our tax dollars are spent wisely. All must be legitimized by those processes before any money can be spent. I see the real challenge lies in educating John Q Public on establishing and maintaining some level of trust and maybe a way to do that is by comparing what we were back in 1775 — when England and King George became our common enemies — to today, where we find ourselves surrounded by a plethora of socio-, geostrategic and geopolitical climates. It costs a lot of time and resources to be the number one global superpower. And without the support from our fellow citizens, we could find ourselves in dire straits trying to put out global brush fires with no clear intent on national objectives. A country without a strong centralized government could equate to something like Darfur. According to a Web site “DarfurScores.Org”, “The genocide [in Darfur] has claimed 400,000 lives and displaced over 2,500,000 people. More than one hundred people continue to die each day; five thousand die every month…” I agree with Savi Swick’s comments below … “There are those countries that don’t have governments or have pseudo governments where anarchy rules and we all know those are not places that we want to be…”

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Dan! A Kinky Friedman reference…as an aside, my cousin created the KinkyToons videos for his recent campaign. Aw heck, I’ll embed one because it drives home @Bobby’s points:

To @Bobby’s point, there are two “governments” in the public’s minds – the career public servants, which have a certain reputation, and then there are the elected officials, which foster a different but equally negative perception. We can vote out the latter, but what mechanism is there for people to seek change in the former? Does the tail (Congress) wag the dog (Civil Servants)?

And I agree that we need independent candidates, but people like Kinky Friedman, Jesse Ventura and other independent candidates, who are in some ways hard to take seriously, seem to be the ones who win office. Reagan, though not an independent, and Schwarzenegger are good examples of people who are of the same ilk in terms of their backgrounds…but who have been successful and effective political executives.

Paul Revere Man

Please read my response to your questions here (it was far too long to put in this little space)

You seem to be a bright fellow, but you need a little history for perspective.