Reviving Liberal Republicanism in America

Why It Is Ludicrous to Regard All Government

Why It Is Ludicrous to Regard All Government As a Problem


In his first Inaugural Address on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan purportedly stated "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." ‎For decades that quote has been fuel for a Republican Party that has morphed to a place way beyond Reagan's belief in limited, decentralized government. By 2012 the Republican Party had taken Reagan’s principles to extremes way beyond the place the conservative but pragmatic Reagan had taken them [link]. Mitt Romney, a former moderate Republican Governor of Massachusetts and the son of the great liberal Republican George Romney, only won the Republican nomination for President in 2012 by abandoning many of the policies that he and his father had stood for. At around the same time, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush had pointed out that Ronald Reagan and his Dad, President George H.W. Bush, would have had a difficult time securing the nomination of the Republican Party in 2012 (let alone in 2016, which Jeb Bush unsuccessfully tried to do) . [5]

In fact, Reagan's famous quote about government is taken out of context by the all-government-is-bad crowd. What Reagan said was "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."[6] The present crisis to which he referred was the state of the economy and the high inflation that existed at the time of Reagan's election.

Reagan stated: "These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions. We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.

Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, causing human misery and personal indignity. Those who do work are denied a fair return for their labor by a tax system which penalizes successful achievement and keeps us from maintaining full productivity."[7]

Reagan's quote is used today as if the words "In this present crisis" were not part of what he said, as if he was making a blanket statement about all government being bad.

In fact, as described by Geoffrey Kabaservice in his outstanding book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party:

“Reagan’s inaugural address revealed his skill at rousing conservatives while retaining moderates. The address is best known for his pronouncement that ‘government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.’ But Reagan quickly reassured the nation that he was no right-wing anarchist: ‘[I]t’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work-work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.’[8]

It is rational to believe in the kind of small, decentralized government that Ronald Reagan embraced.  It is a wholly other matter to believe that all government is inherently bad. To condemn all government unreasonably ties our nation’s hands. A couple of examples, one about what might be the world's most successful country over the last half century and one about American college football, may help to illustrate this point.

Many years ago I lived in Singapore, and I travel back there frequently, often with other Americans who have never been there. The more politically conservative they are, the more they tend to like Singapore. It is a very clean, safe and organized place. After we leave Singapore, just to tease them a bit, I ask "So how did you like the socialist state?" They usually respond with a shocked look on their face. I then explain how much of Singapore is owned by the government or by government controlled-agencies--including publicly traded companies like Singapore Airlines--much more so than in the United States. Moreover, Singapore is famously highly, highly regulated.[9] Yet Singapore is an ultramodern, efficient, well-run place in which capitalism prevails and the per capita income has increased more than 100 fold (yes, really) in the 50 plus years the country has been independent.[10]

Once, I told a Singaporean friend about my habit of asking first time visitors how they liked the "socialist state." He smiled and said that Singaporeans don't think of their government as socialist. Rather, they think of the Singapore government as running the country like one would run a big corporation. In Singapore everything, from business to government, is expected to run efficiently and honestly, like a well-oiled machine.

Rather than merely complaining that all government is inherently problematic, some on the political right in America who are viscerally against government could help address our dysfunctional, gridlocked government by advocating for Singapore-style efficient government, along with smaller government. And some on the political left who advocate for a larger government role in society could be more convincing if they combined their advocacy for large government with an expectation that government would run like a well-run business.[11]

Saying that all government is bad is a bit like saying that only football players whose last names start with the letters A through K can play for our team. Our team will be weaker than if we used all the players available to us. Taking a look at how college football teams performed before and after they integrated racially, and before and after public university teams ‎recruited aggressively out of state, illustrates this point.

In 1970, the University of Southern California's football team, a fully-integrated team, traveled to play Alabama, a still segregated team. USC won the game 42 to 21. Sam Cunningham, a USC running back, had twelve carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone.[12] This thrashing convinced Alabama of the need to integrate, and, in 1971 Alabama recruited its first Black player. The Crimson Tide's wins, losses and ties in the years before integrating and after speak for themselves.

Year W L T


1967 8 2 1

1968 8 3 0

1969 6 5 0

1970 6 5 1


1971 11 1 0

1972 10 2 0

1973 11 1 1

1974 11 1 0

1975 11 1 0

Jerry Claiborne, a former assistant to Alabama coach Bear Bryant, said “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate [the University of] Alabama in sixty minutes than Martin Luther King did in twenty years.”  Not true of course, but the effects of this game are undeniable. 

Similar statistics can be found when looking at the success of state college football teams that diversified their rosters to include more out-of-state players (regardless of their race). For example, in the 1990s Louisiana State University had a ratio of 2.675 in-state players to out-of-state players. Their record that decade was 54-58. In the next decade, LSU's ratio of in-state players to out-of-state players dropped to 2.113. LSU's record in that decade was 99-31.[13]

Not only was Reagan's statement about government taken completely out of context, but even Reagan's belief in limited, decentralized government was a point to which he evolved from his earlier support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

Reagan stated: ‎"At the end of World War II, I was a New Dealer to the core. I thought the government could solve all our problems just as it had ended the Depression and won the war. I didn't trust big business. I thought government, not private companies should own our public utilities; if there wasn't enough housing to shelter the American people, I thought the government should build it; if we needed better health care, the answer was socialized medicine."[14]

Republican politicians today routinely pay homage to those who want to strangle government, misusing Reagan's words to deny something that Reagan clearly recognized: that changing times require changing politics.[15]

Just as the circumstances were different when Reagan supported the New Deal than they were when he later sought political office, the Republicans who today argue that all government is bad face circumstances that are very different from the circumstances that existed when Reagan was elected President. ‎After all, Reagan was elected after fifty years of basically progressive government, starting with Roosevelt's New Deal, and whose excesses were arguably abundant. Today's Republicans, in contrast, are living in an American political environment that Reagan re-calibrated to a much more conservative space.

The contemporary Republican Party has not evolved towards the center, and it does not appear at the national level to be adaptable to changing times. In fact, almost all Republican politicians at the national level are reluctant to speak moderately for fear of disgruntling the Republican right wing.[16]

Why is this so? It may be because national politicians who do not adhere to right-wing dogmas are attacked voraciously in the Congressional Districts and states they represent by a Party base that is passionate and much more active than the average citizen. They are challenged in Republican primaries by challengers who do adhere to such dogmas.[17] And this state of affairs subsists for two reasons. First, many politicians strike the wrong balance between public service and their own reelection. Second, at the grass roots and local levels the Republican Party lacks the progressives and moderates‎ who could provide support for Republican politicians who refuse to adhere to right-wing dogmas.