Do government-haters govern worse?

Yes. And if you can’t tell the difference between the Army and the Veterans Administration, you probably shouldn’t be opining on the topic of health care for veterans.

Volokh Conspirator David Bernstein, a libertarian, doesn’t believe that Republican hostility to government leads to poorer public management under Republican administrations. For this position he makes several arguments, none of which holds water, and one of which rests on a ludicrous error that Bernstein seems to share with various reporters: a confusion between the Army medical system, which is awful, and the Veterans Administration medical system, which used to be awful and is now superb.

The Bush Administration, says Bernstein, spends lots of money; therefore it can’t be anti-government. But no matter how much of other people’s money he’s willing to spend, Bush has never disowned the Reaganite mantra, “Government isn’t the solution; government is the problem,” and Reaganism remains the ideology to which all Republican candidates must pay tribute. The identification of the private sector with efficiency and liberty, and the public sector with “socialism” and sloth, is the one thing the libertarians such as Bernstein share with mainstream conservatives.

The latest illustration of the incompetence of government, says Bernstein, is the Walter Reed scandal.

If private companies had mismanaged outpatient care for veterans the way the V.A. system has, there would be strong calls from all the usual quarters for a government takeover, and proclamations of how we can’t trust “greedy” for-profit companies to take care of veterans. Funny how this thought process doesn’t seem to work in reverse, except among “free market ideologues,” who have been criticizing the V.A. for years.

But of course Walter Reed is run by the Army, with the help of the private contractors Republicans love to use because they’re so efficient (that is, not full of civil servants who might vote Democratic) and of course because they and their lobbyists make such lovely campaign contributions.

The VA medical system used to be terrible; I recall medical-resident friends joking about “practicing veterinary medicine,” because the VA treated its patients like animals. It was fixed under Bill Clinton, and now has the best quality and customer-satisfaction numbers in the entire health-care system, and leads the way in the use of information technology to improve quality and cut cost.

For some reason, the Bush Administration has failed to get the VA re-FUBARed, but of course it’s been busy FUBARing Iraq, with the help of contractors and CPA staff hired for political loyalty rather than competence. The Bush Administration is planning to starve the VA financially, but so far hasn’t badly damaged it operationally.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, on the other hand, has completed the round trip, from pork-and-patronage cesspit under Reagan and Bush, Sr., to superb disaster-relief agency under Bill Clinton, back to cesspit under Bush, Jr. Part of the difference is that Clinton appointed a disaster-relief professional to run FEMA, while Bush appointed first his campaign manager and then his campaign manager’s old college buddy, Heckuva Job Brownie. (At least Brown at FEMA wasn’t in nearly as sensitive a position as Bernie Kerik, Giuliani’s sleazeball former driver, would have been at the Department of Homeland Security. All he could do is mess up New Orleans.)

Bernstein argues that whether the public sector is managed well or badly depends largely on incentives. Fair enough. So let’s consider the incentives. When a Republican President presides over a public-management failure, he can use it to illustrate one of his basic political points: that government is bad, while private enterprise is good. That limits his incentive to secure good performance. A Democrat, by contrast, has no such excuse when things go badly, so he has much stronger motivations to make them go well.

Of course Republicans do some things right and Democrats do some things badly. But putting the anti-government party in power is hardly likely to improve the performance of government. As Bernstein’s post illustrates, people who despise government aren’t even good at criticizing it, for much the same reason that people who dislike rock music make bad rock critics and temperance crusaders make bad wine critics.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: