Big Bag of Hurt: Big Government Project, Big FailurePosted: October 27, 2013 | |
The Obamacare website fiasco shows that big government can’t deliver on extensive endeavors.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes: So the Obamacare website doesn’t work, and nobody knows when it’ll be fixed. Administration officials are pointing toward late November, but they’ve had more than three years to work on it. In about the same amount of time after John F. Kennedy’s “we choose to go to the moon” speech, we’d already put people into orbit and brought them safely to earth. It was obviously the signature effort of the Obama administration, but it was a flop. Forget launching to the moon; we can’t even launch a website now. What does that tell us?
Well, don’t blame Obama too much. It certainly tells us that the government has trouble executing the things it decides to do. But it wasn’t always that way. Even for Obama.
The 1960s space program, of course, is a classic example of big government doing something successfully: Promising to put men on the moon within a decade, and doing it. But there are others.
Not far from me is Norris Dam, the very first dam built by the Tennessee Valley Authority. It was filled in 1936, less than three years after the Tennessee Valley Authority Act passed Congress. Note that it was not less than three years after construction started, but less than three years after the act creating the agency that built it passed Congress. Norris Dam worked, and it’s still there today, more than 70 years later.
The Obamacare website — which took longer to create — doesn’t work, and certainly won’t be around in 70 years. And if you think about it, it seems like the moon landing was one of the last times the federal government delivered a big successful program ahead of schedule. I can’t think of many others since.
Unlike Norris Dam, the Olmsted Dam and Locks on the Ohio River were authorized by Congress in 1988, but a quarter-century later the project is only half-done. It has also overrun its budget by a factor of four.
Meanwhile, most of the interesting stuff being done in outer space are being done by private companies. (In fact, President Obama’s space policy approach, which emphasizes private enterprise, is one of his greatest policy successes.)
As it’s gotten bigger the federal government appears to have gotten less competent. Apollo was a success on its own terms, but the big government policies that followed — the War On Poverty, the War On Drugs, the War On Cancer — have all been pretty much failures, sometimes disastrous ones.
Even Obama himself is evidence of this problem. His 2012 presidential campaignwas famous for its mastery of technology, building up an electronic campaign infrastructure in just a few months that helped him win the election. But, of course, it wasn’t a government operation. Obama without the government — a technological success. Obama within the government — a technological embarrassment. The difference between success and failure here, as even Obama-haters will have to admit, wasn’t Obama. It’s more likely that a political campaign has clear goals, and lots of freedom to improvise, while a federal program is much more encumbered by law and bureaucracy.
Whatever the cause, it remains indisputable that the federal government isn’t very good at delivering on big projects. The obvious response is to not entrust the federal government with big projects on which it can’t deliver. Instead, they should be left to those who can.
Will our political and pundit class draw the obvious lesson here? Stay tuned.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself. He blogs at InstaPundit.com.
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