Marc Ambinder, an erstwhile colleague here at Atlantic Media (parent company of Government Executive), has a post on GQ.com reflecting on what he's learned in a decade of covering politics and policy in Washington. (He's off to Los Angeles.) One item on his list stuck out to me:
I am not the first person to notice the huge gap between what we think government does and what it actually does. But it seems to be enormous today, and its absence is noticed everywhere in the city. The theory is that we have no idea where our tax money goes; it is so widely distributed, or distributed to other people that we many of us perceive government to be off doing something else, probably something wasteful. We only notice government when it inhibits us; when a small business confronts a new regulation. Most of us don't notice (because it's invisible) when government programs allow us to sleep well at night. We never really worry that airplanes are going to crash, or that trucks with hazardous materials that trundle by each morning are going to explode; or whether the electricity is going to be on today, or whether the Internet is going to be "on," or whether the breakfast food we eat is going to poison us, or whether a bridge is going to collapse as we drive to work, or whether, if we have a heart attack and no health insurance, the ER doc isn't going to give us an ECG. Obviously, sometimes these things happen, and maybe the private sector can play a larger role than it does. But they would happen all the time if the silent machinery of government weren't working pretty well.
This squares with something I've long thought: that when trust in government was high, it was because government was actively engaged in high-profile projects -- winning world wars, building interstate highways, landing on the moon, etc. Now government's role tends to be more restricted to preventing bad things from happening -- plane crashes, acts of terrorism, abject poverty on a large scale. Those things are simply much easier to take for granted.