Private enterprise produces employment, wages, and wealth, but our public structures are what facilitate the conduct of business, providing the framework necessary for markets to thrive. Key public systems also help protect people against the risks of a free-market economy and provide the infrastructure for economic opportunity such as public- and higher-education systems, tasks that are beyond the purview of any individual. Although the balance between market forces and government institutions and regulations varies over time and place, the notion that public structures and market enterprises work together to generate the common good is virtually a definition of an advanced industrial nation.
Yet for the last several decades, the country has reverted to a premise more like Adam Smith's -- that the public interest is nothing but the sum of private interests; that government is not a partner in prosperity but antithetical to it. From this point of view, government's activities should be minimal; taxes are not the price of government but a pure drag on efficiency. What cannot be provided or ensured by private markets is presumed to be the responsibility of individuals.
In fact, this ideology flies in the face of both sound economics and the American experience, going all the way back to the republic's founding, when government promoted the mechanical and agricultural arts and established a land-tenure system that favored small-scale freeholders. In the 19th century, government subsidized railroads and land-grant colleges and initiated regulation to limit economic concentrations. In the 1930s, government extended highways, brought electricity to remote locations, used regulation to restore solvency and confidence to the financial system, and erected the Social Security framework that today provides at least a minimal income to people who can no longer work. In the 1960s, government brought health care to the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. In the 1990s, government expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, removing from poverty more than 4.4 million people in families with low-wage workers.
Today, the challenge of ensuring economic opportunity and addressing widening economic inequality requires new public structures. They might involve establishing savings accounts for all newborn children, so that they grow up with confidence that they can afford college, and they might include providing secure heath coverage and converting the home-mortgage deduction to a system of refundable housing credits.
But in this decade, the political dominance of the small-government/low-tax ideology has become disabling. The problem is not that the citizenry supports wide inequalities; most Americans are in fact generous in wishing to end poverty and other social ills. The problem is that people have been led to believe that government cannot be trusted to secure the common good, and that fiscal resources are in any case unavailable.
Public opinion toward government has been shaped by decades of relentless negative rhetoric, emphasizing government waste and mismanagement. Political leaders of both parties contribute to this dysfunctional perspective, running against government when campaigning and then criticizing government rather than championing its necessary role once they're in office. This cynicism has brought the public to a point that it has trouble even imagining the creation of effective public structures to manage the people's business.
Some distrust of government is inevitable. In more constructive eras, however, American ambivalence about government has been balanced by an understanding that government is necessary to curb the power of monopolies, expand opportunity and security, ensure the rights of workers and consumers, and eliminate discrimination.
Polls suggest that today's voters are once again receptive to a major government role in alleviating poverty and expanding opportunity. A survey conducted just a few months ago by The Pew Research Center reported that 69 percent of respondents believed that "it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves," a 12-point increase since July 1994. Significantly, 54 percent agreed with the more challenging statement that "the government should help more needy people, even if it means going deeper in debt."
As the columnist E.J. Dionne recently observed (in a tribute to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who died in February), "Renewing the public sphere and reviving concern for the less privileged and less powerful are inevitably what free citizens demand at the end of a conservative era." As the citizenry again becomes more receptive to a government role, our public language about government needs to become better informed and less timid. We have already begun to see hints of this transformation in the reduction in blatant antigovernment rhetoric and in the willingness of such politicians as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to embrace public remedy. When Patrick's opponents (from both parties) challenged him to back a tax cut, using the slogan "It's their money," Patrick responded, "Yes, but it's also their broken neighborhoods and their broken neighbors."
How to Talk About Government
For the last several years we have been studying how Americans think about government, and we have begun to disseminate ideas on how to build support for a more positive and balanced perspective of government's necessary role. Through our research partner, The FrameWorks Institute, we have examined how people process information about government, and we have developed ways to talk about government that lead to productive conversations in which citizens are more open to ideas and information about the public sector and not closed by biased and stereotypical thinking.
Research indicates that on most subjects involving public affairs, people have more than one mental filter through which they process information. People's first thoughts of government -- their "top of the mind" associations -- tend to be of bickering politicians or, alternatively, of a shapeless bureaucracy. So, if people associate government with bickering politicians or an undifferentiated bureaucracy, their unmediated views of "government," will tend to be hostile and cynical. However, people also have available more positive perspectives -- among them, that government protects us against misfortunes from which we can't protect ourselves, and that government is an actor through which, along with business and civic institutions, people solve common problems. In addition, people want to view themselves as responsible citizens and hope they can elect representatives who are responsible, forward-thinking stewards of the common good. If we can "cue up" these perspectives when we talk about public policies, receptivity to government actions could be vastly different. People would be able to judge ideas involving government on their merits rather than discarding them because the ideas prematurely evoke negative perceptions.
This research not only offers a way forward rhetorically; it can provide confidence that the prevailing views of government in the public mind are not fixed, but can be changed over time. It tells us that many people yearn to believe that we -- through our public structures -- are capable of addressing collective challenges. (For more information on our findings and recommendations, go to www.demos.org/publicworks.)
In Search of Leadership
Our research findings are just words on the page until leaders not only embrace a more complete understanding of the role of government in national development but also incorporate that understanding into their communications. Community leaders need to locate their particular issues within a broad perspective on government and the public interest. Over time, the incorporation of these insights in political language will increase popular receptivity to public initiatives.
This may be easier said than done, however. Leaders with commitments to particular policies or institutions have to abandon the "silo" approach of seeking support for their particular policy areas, and they have to work with others to expand resources for a broad range of programs, not just their own. Those who perpetually insist that the sky is falling should offer fewer overwhelming, doomsday scenarios and more practical, feasible solutions for change. Those who have reveled in an indignant critique of specific public officials should recognize government successes and imagine a future of effective new public structures to address public needs. Policy experts must truly communicate with citizens who have little interest in policy minutiae, and who instead want to know where to locate a subject in their hierarchy of values.
The good news is that large numbers of people have a stake in an effective public sector, though they may not yet recognize their common interest. For example, the transportation industry and the environmentalists both have an interest in greatly increasing and stabilizing the gasoline tax, albeit for very different reasons (the former need to pay for road and transit construction, while the latter need to force innovation in auto efficiency). Yet neither has recognized its interest in working with the other, or in promoting a positive perspective on the key role of government in managing change.
One unequivocal contribution of the conservative movement has been the lesson that disciplined dedication to articulating the core relationships among government, market forces, and civil society, embedded in well-resourced institutions, can have a profound influence on public affairs. As we contemplate a renewed effort to reduce poverty, we recognize that the country is well-endowed with institutional infrastructure dedicated to the defense and promotion of existing institutions. But we have taken the role of government for granted, content to defend individual programs or policies but unconcerned about the conceptual and ideological bases on which they exist.
In the upcoming presidential elections, we must ask our leaders to bring a proper role for government into the public debate. We can ask our candidates to take the lead in using their public messages to promote conceptions of the common good that explicitly recognize how government, working with citizens and the private sector, can bring about a better society.