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The Big Difference

01/22/08 5:55PM By Olin Robison
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(HOST) As past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College, commentator Olin Robison has long been interested in American attitudes about effective government. Lately he's been reflecting on the perennial debate of whether the best government - is the one that governs least.

(ROBISON) A lot of Europeans think there is little difference between American Republicans and American Democrats. And there are plenty of knowledgeable Americans who see little difference between European Christian Democrats - who see themselves as Conservatives - and European Social Democrats - who see themselves as Liberals.

But, dear friends, there are significant differences between left and right on both sides of the Atlantic, and, since I am an American, I see the differences on this side more clearly.

On this side of the ocean the overriding difference is between those who think that government matters and those who basically think that it does not.

It is Democrats who believe that government programs more often than not are good and Republicans who most often profess to believe the opposite.

It was none other than Ronald Reagan who said both before and after he was elected that government is not part of the solution but a major part of the problem. He even managed to get RE-ELECTED President by running against the government of which he had been the head for four years! You just have to admire that.

It was during the current Republican administration that the phrase "starve the beast" came into the political lexicon. By this was meant - especially with regard to domestic programs - to keep government programs small by refusing to increase their operating budgets, so that sooner or later they would just die. It was the much-quoted Republican Grover Norquist who said that his goal was a government small enough that it could be drowned in the bathtub.

One wag (another name for a talking head) said recently that Republicans believe that Government is incompetent; they get elected and then set about to prove it. Sorry, that quote is just too good to pass up!

Of course, on the other side, a great many Democrats see an opportunity for a government solution (and new agency) around almost every corner.

There are programs in Washington that have long ago, and I do mean long ago, outlived their usefulness. This, alas, could be a very long list. Both parties have a long record of "adding on" rather than getting rid of. "Sunset" laws, designed to phase out programs when they have outlived their usefulness, can be a very good thing.

I once heard someone describe government as a house which has been added onto over and over; but certainly not as though it was part of some grand plan. Appendages have been added here and there - but certainly not the sort of thing any self-respecting architect might design.

I do wish we could get beyond all this childish nonsense. Why can't we simply acknowledge that there are some things best done by business; some things best done by non-profits; and some things best done by a government - either federal, state or local.

It seems simple to me. But then, what do I know?

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