Robert Samuelson | Why There’s a Trust Gap

Since World War II, American government has assumed more responsibilities  than can reasonably be met.

Some are unattainable; others are in conflict. Government is, among other  things, supposed to: control the business cycle; combat poverty; cleanse the  environment; provide health care; protect the elderly; subsidize college  students; aid states and localities. There are more. Most are essentially  postwar commitments. As I’ve written before, government becomes almost  “suicidal” by pervasively generating unrealistic expectations.

The more people depend on it, the more they may be disappointed by it.

Unfortunately, political leaders find it almost impossible to confront  government’s overcommitment. They find it difficult to withdraw or modify  promises previously made and programs previously created — to define what  really matters and discard or shrink what’s secondary, outdated or ineffective.  In the budget debates, spending cuts have mostly involved across-the-board  changes that exempt Congress or the White House from making explicit decisions  about which programs to favor and which to reduce or dismantle. Everything, or  almost everything, is preserved. This may spread the pain in ways that are  politically expedient in the short run while making government less effective in  the long run. It will not resuscitate trust.

We come full circle to Volcker. What he’s creating is an institute that will  focus on the “nuts and bolts” of implementing policies effectively: for example,  having better-trained bank examiners. Although this cannot hurt, it’s not the  essence of our problem, which is being more rigorous about defining what  government can and should do. Democracies must have the capacity to take actions  that, though unpopular and painful in the present, are desirable for the  society’s ultimate well-being. This defined the triumph of Volcker and Reagan in  the 1980s. It’s conspicuously missing today.

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