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Big Government Success Stories
An Essay by Paul Light

audio Listen to Light's essay.

Nov. 12, 2001 -- Looking back over the past 50 years, it is hard not to be proud of what the federal government and its civic partners have achieved. Name a significant domestic or foreign problem and the federal government has made some effort to fix it, often to stunning success.

America rarely conquers enemies such as poverty, disease, discrimination and pollution through a single great law such as Medicare or the Voting Rights Act. Rather, the United States tends to wear its adversaries down, year after year, law after law, until victory is won.

Poverty among the elderly has fallen because of 12 separate increases in Social Security benefits since 1946. No single president or political party can claim credit for the success.

"This is an era of promises to create smaller, more limited government and battles about which sector can best handle airport security. We often forget that the federal government has amassed a distinguished record of endeavor that no other sector, private or non-profit, could create on its own."

Paul Light

America rarely conquers a problem by thinking small. No one knew for sure that the United States could rebuild Europe after World War II -- or conquer polio or tuberculosis, build the interstate highway system or land a man on the moon. But the federal government did them all.

Nor did anyone know that the United States could make air and water cleaner, reduce racial discrimination, protect endangered species or make a high school education a universal right. But the federal government has made progress on all fronts.

This is an era of promises to create smaller, more limited government and battles about which sector can best handle airport security. We often forget that the federal government has amassed a distinguished record of endeavor that no other sector, private or non-profit, could create on its own. Perhaps that is why President Bush took such pains after the terrorist attacks to reassure the nation that the federal government would be open for business the next day.

Now the federal government is tackling another seemingly insurmountable problem, a war against international terrorism. It is just the kind of audacious goal that will top the list of the federal government's greatest endeavors of the new century. And, with perseverance and steady bipartisanship, it is likely to be one of the government's greatest achievements, too.

Paul Light is vice president and director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.