Ready for a little heresy? Here goes: The government we have is about the right size, or a little small, for what it is asked to do.
I call as my first witness the humble banana. In a few short years the Cavendish banana, the variety which we know and love (about 100 billion are consumed annually worldwide), may fail as a crop throughout the banana-producing regions of the world.
That is because Cavendish bananas, which have no useful seeds and are cultivated from clippings, have been infected with the strain of a fungus that nearly wiped out the world’s former top banana, the Gros Michel, or Big Mike, in the 1960s.
But worry not. Somewhere in the sprawling Department of Agriculture, scientists are working to save the American breakfast fruit, at least I hope so.
I call my second witness: the Burmese Python. This invasive rascal – a constrictor that can crush and swallow an alligator – is perpetrating the animal equivalent of genocide in the Florida Everglades. I hope there is a federal program to contain this constrictor before it overcomes its aversion to cold winters or, as the climate continues to warm, it comes sailing up the Potomac River at 6 miles per hour.
The same hope extends to saving honeybees, without which all plant life (except bananas and other clones) will perish. We also need to save the dwindling bat population, to stop the Asian carp from swimming up the Mississippi River and threatening the Great Lakes. And we need federal sleuths to track down the salmonella infection in eggs and punish the farmers who produced them.
We expect the federal government to be omnipotent and omnipresent. We were shattered to learn, for example, that the Feds had no way of sealing the runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. We also want the government to have limitless compassion for the flood victims in Pakistan and the hurricane survivors in Haiti.
These are just some of the small-scale problems, not the big ones of war and peace, of welfare and Obamacare. But they are among a myriad of things we want done by our government. Now. Fast.
Recently I have become interested in so-called orphan diseases. These are the cripplers and killers that have no powerful lobbies fighting for federal research dollars, and have failed to excite the pharmaceutical industry because there is unlikely to be a cure in a pill. Desperately, those who suffer from these diseases call on the government to do the research and find a cure.
But here is another problem: not enough competition in the government. While the National Institutes of Health is criticized for picking winners and losers for research dollars, it is the only game in town. The solution would be a competing institution.
In the world of energy and nuclear weaponry, there are many competing government laboratories, including the three large federal weapons labs: Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore. They compete, they overlap, sometimes they duplicate, but they provide a kind of defense in depth against scientific favoritism.
Pluralism and diversity have a place in government, even if the critics cry “waste.”
Some years ago at an Aspen Institute meeting, the economist Irwin Stelzer, a passionate free-marketer, clashed with James Schlesinger, an economist, historian and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, secretary of defense and secretary of energy. Stelzer’s argument was that the private sector was better and more efficient at research.
Brilliant as Stelzer is (I have known both men for about 40 years), that round went to Schlesinger who listed effortlessly more than a dozen government-funded inventions, from the Internet to the aero-derivative gas turbine. He made the case for government sufficiently well-funded to do the job.
My case is less sophisticated. We keep asking more of government even while we say we want less.
Even the government has not been able to invent a plausible free lunch. So, pay up.