Public Policy at the end of the Century

This article is part of the PPSA Online Magazine
by John Johnson
Volume 7 Number 2 - Winter 1994

This isn't a simple topic. In fact, it's pretty all-encompassing. I mean, there's a real philisophical debate as to the way of achieving our goals. Some believe that the Government has a role to play in shaping our future through Government programs. The other camp believes that the Government should only interfere where necessary, and that incentives will spur the private sector on to grow and the net result will be that everyone will be better off. John F. Kennedy stated this philosophy by saying "A rising tide lifts all boats."

But let me back off for a bit...

I don't pretend to be an economist. Take everything I say with a grain of salt. I am just another self-appointed expert, spouting my opinions. My interpretation of the world. Nothing else. With that in mind, There are obviously two areas we must consider. First we have to look at the philosophical. We have to decide what our vision of the future is. Then we have to look at the societal and economic situations of the real world, and come up with a realistic way of getting there.

There have been tremendous changes in our nation, and indeed the world, in the past century. One hundred years ago automobiles and telephones were still a novelty. Automobiles weren't commercially manufactured until after the turn of the Century. Orville and Wilbur were a decade away from the first flight at Kitty Hawk. There was no radio, there were no movies. The great state of New Mexico, in which I currently reside, was a wild land filled with cowboys and indians. Look at how far medicine, transportation, communication and scientific understanding have come in 100 years.

If we look back 50 years, it was believed that everyone would wear jet packs and own a helicopter for commuting to work by the 21st century. Science fiction stories painted a world where mankind had already begun to colonize Mars and explore space. The futurist of the 40's thought we could achieve our wildest dreams. In fact, we achieved much more. We didn't make it to the stars, but we achieved many things that couldn't be dreamed of at the time. We haven't cured every disease, but we working on advanced genome mapping. Many diseases like polio have effectively been wiped out. Who would have predicted the development of microchips, liquid crystal displays, flat picture tubes, microwave ovens, VCRs or small computers that sit on your desk and have the power of the most powerful mainframe from only a few years ago? We now consider these inventions as commonplace and we have come to rely on many of them as an integral part of our everyday lives. The most important changes in technology, and thus the way that we interact as a society, were not correctly predicted. They were, for the most part, impossible to predict. We might have more information now with which to base our own predictions of the coming century, but it will be the unforseen breakthroughs that make the most dramatic and influential changes.

With that in mind, we have to set basic goals and drive them with simple underlying philosophies, and not rely on technology to save us. We have to promote the atmosphere most condusive to allowing the great potential inventions of the coming Century. There will, no doubt, be major breakthroughs. I would expect great advances in telecommunications, medicine, science and technology. We may have nanomachines, the Internet in every home, virtual reality, and a cure for the common cold, but the most prudent approach is not to subscribe to the "Deux ex Machina" philosophy of life. As with the development of nuclear fusion, the bomb that kept us a peace for the past 50 years also provided our greatest threat for destruction. With great improvements in technology also come great responsibilities for our society. We must expand our horizons, but be prepared for the consequences.

I would like to envision a future that allows great opportunity for every American. I am not looking ahead to the day when the world holds hands in peace and sings Kumbya. I am just looking ahead to America 20 or 30 years into the 21st century. That is still too far ahead to accurately predict the state of society, but it is good to look ahead and set goals. So, by this date we would like to see crime and poverty and hunger lowered if not eradicated. Right? That is a good goal. We would like to see America with a strong economy. We would like to think that anyone who is able to work would have the opportunity to do so. We want to be safe from the threats of other nations and terrorists.

These are laudable goals and I think that it is reasonable to believe that America will be one of, if not the only nation able to assume a global leadership role over the next couple decades. Therefore we must work hard as a nation to set the course and make the policies that will get us to that "better world" that we aspire to. This means a great deal of reform in Washington. This means better education and understanding of the issues and what is at stake. We must start making changes today that will effect this positive change, and we must not be short sighted because we don't foresee the next big technological breakthrough to come down the pike.

Once we have set our goals, we must decide which philosophical approach to take. I personally subscribe to these basic tenents:

  • The role of government should be limited to providing defense, a framework of laws and enforcement to protect the innocent and defenseless, to act as an arbiter in legal disputes, to protect our basic freedoms and to provide the opportunity for the pursuit of happiness.
  • The power in government should be kept close to the people so as to keep the government in check.
  • When governments get involved in business and trade they usually make things more expensive, harder to get and of lower quality. Therefore, on a level playing ground, free trade and capitalism with only limited and necessary restrictions should be promoted.
Beyond these basic beliefs, I am quite willing to change my mind on a subject. In fact, many readers will disagree with my philosophy, but at least they will see that I do not make these decisions arbitrarily.

I believe that every American has the right to work. Welfare, as it currently functions, rewards people for not working. It does not provide an adequate incentive to work. Unions can, and often are counterproductive. America should find a way to invest in education and job training. This should be our number one priority. Actually, I feel that job training falls under the general topic of Education. Someday it may well be possible to have all educational institutions privately owned. That is not reasonable today. Education must be made accessible to every single American. This is what is necessary to provide a level playing ground within our own borders. If more and more people, per capita, are educated; able to read and write and hold challenging jobs -- then the per capita income will rise. Economic boundaries will be broken. Along with this, racial tensions will decrease. Education will improve the state of the inner cities. Crime rates will drop and our country will be more prosperous and safer. I most strongly believe in this. This has to be our number one goal. I just don't know how to make it happen.

Subsidies are wrong. It is inevitable that certain industries will decline or even be replaced in time. Workers in one part of the country will have to pick up and move to where there is work. There should be no sacred cows or protected classes. People have to be educated and should prepare for the future. It is not the Government's responsibility to make all the pain go away. Being a human is tough. The Government should work to provide a fair and equitable set of rules. We live in a society where people are used to running up tremendous debt. They figure they will pay for it tomorrow. People didn't used to think that way. My great-grandparents lived through the depression. They had to learn the hard way about responsibility. Both individuals and the Government need to learn this. This means that not only will you and I have to act more responsibly, our Government will not have the luxury of paying for everyone's pet project. The federal budget will have to be tamed. I just don't know how to make it happen.

Because the Government tends to only do a good job operating as a business when it can act as a monopoly, it need to be improved. This change means that when the Government doesn't like the outcome, it can't just change the rules so it wins. It shouldn't be an Us versus Them game. In this last election the voters sent a strong message that the Government works for the best interest of the American Public. Not in the best interest of the politicians and lobbyists. The Federal Government needs to relinquish some power back to the states and local governments. The Federal Government needs to be trimmed. This means reducing and even eliminating certain agencies and groups. When the Government forces new regulations on individuals and businesses, they should be reasonable and fair. Too many existing regulations are just too arbitrary or not based on scientific fact. In line with cutting the size of Government, there need to be priorities in what the taxpayer's dollars do get spent on. I work at a National Lab, and I think that basic science research is very important. Maintaining the great braintrust that we have in this nation is vital to our national defense, in more than just a limited military role but also in an economic role. However, projects that could better be carried out in the private sector shouldn't be paid for by the Government. Some important research should be funded, and there need to be experts helping our representatives to make these hard decisions. Maybe the SSC wasn't such a great deal, at least there should have been more international funding of the project. We need to take back our Government. I just don't know how to make it happen.

Every American has the right to freedom. But do they have a right to health care? Is that an inalienable right? And if it is, then where do you draw the line? Should I be able to get a nose job or my penis enlarged because it makes me feel better about myself? Maybe the answer is reform of our legal system. I certainly feel that our legal system doesn't work the way it is. Even when large settlements are awarded, the lawyers end up with most of the money. The threat of lawsuits cause the doctors to charge more and the insurance rates to rise. We are concerned about the health of our citizens, but the Government continues to subsidize tobacco. And the tobacco industry claims it never knew that tobacco was addictive. Some experts for the tobacco industry still claim it isn't harmful.

The Constitution gives Americans the right to privacy. But the Government feels it is in the National Security to eavesdrop and intercept a person's electronic mail. The Government cannot make students pray in school, but neither should it stop peaceful and orderly prayer or demonstrations that do not interfere with the school's role of teaching our children.

A woman has a right to privacy, but when she becomes pregnant the life of the unborn child has to be considered. Don't flame me on this one. I am stating that simply at some point, and I don't know when, almost everyone will agree that abortion is wrong. I mean, if someone were to suggest abortion up to 8.5 months, than why not 9.5 months. The point is that the Government shouldn't make up arbitrary rules on abortion until the facts are in. If the facts are in and I don't know them then please send them to me. I don't want to be insensitive. On the other hand, understand that the Government does have a right to protect the defenseless and innocent. Therefore I don't think that the Government should get involved in the issue at all. The Government shouldn't outlaw it, with reasonable restrictions, neither should it pay for it. However, this brings us to a larger issue of responsibility in this country. People shouldn't think that the Government will bail them out of every mistake they make. There should be fewer teenage pregnancies in America. Considerably fewer. Abstinence and prudent sex education should be taught. Condoms shouldn't be handed out in schools though. These kids can come up with a couple bucks if they need to. Maybe if it isn't made easy, and if the fathers are held responsible, that we can learn to become more responsible as a society. All of our rights and responsibilities are intertwined, and this is a difficult issue to sort out. Education needs to be improved. That is the first and best way to stop these frightening trends. Crime and illegitimacy is on the rise and family values and responsibility are on the decline. I'm not spouting rhetoric here, I think you'll agree that we have to reverse these trends. I just don't know how to make it happen.

As a nation, we must look forward. We must all get involved in the process. It is much easier to set goals than to see them through to fruition. The bottom line is whether we as a society can keep up with our technological advances. If we can, then we will adapt. We will make mistakes, but we will learn from them. We will have honest differences of opinion, but we will work to find our way through the maze together. Through better and more accessible education there will be a rising tide in our country, and it will lift us all. There can no longer be have a reactionary, knee-jerk approach to governing. We must all start to take action today.

Last Updated 04/13/95.© 1996 PPSA