US enterprise has triumphed in every area of the private sector, from science and culture to industry and research. So why does greatness in the public sector elude those in power? Gavin Esler asks
America is great in every field except government
Donald Trump’s cry of “make America great again”, or "MAGA” for short, has always been a puzzle. When did America cease to be great? Of course, MAGA is a slogan not a policy. It plays well in a world in which facts are less important in than gimmicky phrases. MAGA is an emotional trigger, not a coherent argument. The trigger works because opinion polls consistently show Americans are very troubled about the state of their country. Amid this sense of decline, it’s worth considering where American greatness has shown itself in the past 30 or 40 years and where it has truly failed.
Since the Second World War, American enterprise, culture and ideas have triumphed in almost every field of human endeavour, with one major exception. The triumphs include Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Wikipedia, Walmart, Berkshire Hathaway, the Tesla car, rock and roll, hip-hop, Netflix, Paypal, Hollywood movies, sports, scientific achievements and medical research. Each of these signs of American greatness is, essentially, from the private sector. And the one major area where America is clearly not great is the public sector, especially government. In the richest country in the world, healthcare outcomes, child poverty, racial and social tensions, school shootings and political disengagement demonstrate an America which is far from great. American democracy in 2018 is, at best, sclerotic. At worst, the system fails its citizens.
The presidencies of the past 50 years have mostly ended in failure. John F Kennedy was assassinated; Lyndon Johnson, destroyed by the lies over Vietnam; Richard Nixon, destroyed by Watergate; Gerald Ford, decent, dull and a stopgap; Jimmy Carter, one mediocre term blighted by the Tehran hostage siege; Ronald Reagan, probably the most successful post-war president and yet almost assassinated and then tarnished by the incompetence of the Iran-Contra scandal; George Bush senior – rejected after one term; Bill Clinton, impeached; George Bush junior, hugely unpopular as a result of the Iraq war. And then there was Barack Obama, who avoided scandal yet disappointed even himself by the difficulties of real reforms to health care and gun control and his foreign policy failures.
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The simple truth is that all these presidents tried hard but could not turn a political system invented for the years of muskets, horses and cowboys into an effective way of harnessing the powers and legitimacy of 21st century democracy.
The United States truly is a great country full of great people with great ideas. But its system of government is a failure, summed up by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith in 1958 in his great work The Affluent Society. Galbraith noted that “in a community where public services have failed to keep abreast of private consumption, things are very different. Here, in an atmosphere of private opulence and public squalor, the private goods have full sway.” Reagan put it differently when he quipped: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help." Reagan was correct. For millions of Americans, government is never the solution and it's often the problem. Well-meaning presidents responded in two ways, broadly the Reagan way and the Clinton way. Reagan promised to “get government off your backs” and cut government functions, except in national defence. Mr Clinton took a different tack. Some 25 years ago, in March 1993, he set up the National Partnership for Reinventing Government under then vice president Al Gore. But this was the 11th attempt to reinvent the American government in the 20th century and it failed. Mr Gore ultimately lost the 2000 presidential election to the small-government, Reagan-esque programme of George W Bush.
Maybe the record of American private sector greatness – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg – suggests that the Reagan way is the only way Americans will accept. The result is a thriving private sector with “public squalor”, as Galbraith put it and a government which, with the exception of the military, is, in the words of Nixon, “a pitiful, helpless giant”. America in the aggregate is the richest country in the world but far from the happiest. The World Happiness Report highlights Norway, Denmark and other Nordic and European countries which tend to have high taxes and a high level of public services. Americans strive for lower taxes, smaller government – and the result is often terrible public services. The US is currently 18th in the happiness index rankings.
Mr Trump’s promise to make America great again – if it means anything beyond his frequently tweeting MAGA as a hashtag – seems to be a chaotic type of Reaganism, without Reagan’s charm or clarity of vision. Mr Trump has cut taxes by design, yet cut government by default. He has not managed to fill government positions (in the State Department for example), key appointees have been fired or have quit and some departments (environmental protection and education) are headed by people who seem to want to get rid of their departments altogether but lack the guts to do it. Yet Americans have survived a mad house for a White House before. The American people will continue to astound us with their genius. But the biggest surprise of all is that a country with so much problem-solving talent cannot solve the problem of government failure.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author