Noemie Emery: Oil spill makes no case for big government

To hear liberals tell it, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill may be the best news of the year. “Government works!” is E.J. Dionne’s lesson. Dana Milbank finds it “exquisite” that Gulf Coast conservatives seek federal aid for their imperiled communities.

Oil and water may not mix, but they add up to a need for big government, and prove on the way that people who question federal power and spending are liars or hypocrites. Or perhaps they may not.  

First of all, most conservatives have never claimed the federal government couldn’t do certain things well. They praise FDR for beating the Nazis; Truman for beating Japan and then saving Europe; Reagan for Star Wars, the large and expensive government program (denounced by the left as a great waste of money) that forced the Soviet Union to buckle; Bush 41 for saving Kuwait; and Bush 43 for the measures (some still unrevealed at this juncture) that made certain that 9/11 wouldn’t happen again, at least in his tenure.

Government acts, all of them, taking vision and money. They want government to do more things even today, like missile defense, exporting democracy (to Iran, among others) and safeguarding the electrical grid against attacks that Iran might be planning.

All things the federal government could and ought to be doing. Not to say money well spent.

Second, because a person or thing can do some things brilliantly doesn’t mean they do everything well. Some writers can’t count past 10 without taking their shoes off; some artists are tone-deaf; some math whizzes cannot learn languages.

President Franklin Roosevelt and Albert Einstein were exceptional talents, but asking them to trade occupations would not have been clever. Like Einstein and Roosevelt, markets and government do different things well.  

Government is a big and blunt instrument, while markets are smaller and flexible tools. Government acts for the whole, and gives things one direction; markets react to and serve individuals, respond to a great many small discrete interests, and facilitate the pursuit of happiness by creating demands for a great many diverse and various skills.

The best government programs open the way for market forces and personal choices to come into play. The highway system built roads, but let people decide when and where to drive on them. The G.I. Bill of Rights was a voucher program that let veterans decide what education and how much they wanted, and to which schools they wanted to go.  

Government does well when it opens doors and lets people go through them, but less well when it tries to micromanage or fix destinations. It did well when it outlawed segregation, but affirmative action became a disaster; welfare was a boon at the start, but became counterproductive.

One can applaud the state when it wins wars, stops terrorists and rushes aid to flood or to drought-stricken areas, and still feel a national health care reform bill will be courting disaster if it tries to take over one-sixth of the economy and directs the employment decisions of millions of doctors and hospitals, the research decisions of hundreds of companies, and the personal health care decisions of 300 million-plus people.

These are decisions best seen to by markets given the proper degree of controls.

In a misapplied quote, President Ronald Reagan once said that government itself was not the problem; it became the problem when it went beyond its legitimate sphere of endeavor.

The extent of that sphere is the object of argument. And oil and water do not alter that.

Examiner columnist Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of “Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”

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