The unimaginable. That's what entrepreneurs and humanitarian organizations could achieve if we had a government of big contexts instead of big intrusion.
I drive one of those teeny tiny Smart cars. I need my reading glasses to locate it. It's a lime green convertible. My kids (two-and-half-year-old triplets) love it. They constantly ask for a ride in it. But I have to tell them, no, they can't, because the government won't let me. It figures it knows better than I do what's safe and what isn't for my kids. They have to be in a back seat, in a child safety seat. Never mind that the death rate for kids two and older in car accidents where there was at least one fatality is virtually identical for kids in car seats versus kids wearing seat belts. (The authors of SuperFreakonomics looked at 30 years of Fatality Analysis Reporting System data). I don't like this kind of government. It's intrusive.
I moved my family last year, and the new place had low-flow shower heads. They also had those flow-restrictors in them — you know, the plastic disc with a hole the size of a stem cell that the water's supposed to come through. This one-two punch makes the apparatus function something more like a humidifier than a shower. So, off we went to Home Depot to find a new shower head. I bought the best one I could find, but it wasn't any better than the one I'd replaced. Back to Home Depot. But none of the shower heads had a flow any higher than 2.5 gallons per minute. "Why?" I asked the sales associate. "The Federal government made it illegal to sell them." So much for price and the market regulating the purchase of water — not to mention the seeming reverse correlation between water pressure and time spent in the shower. I don't like this kind of government. It's busy-bodying and dumb.
Pretty much the only thing actually working in America right now is Apple. And so of course the Justice Department wants to mess with it, announcing an investigation into Apple's refusal to allow the battery-draining, crash-inducing Adobe Flash platform on its iPhones. By all means, let's allow the platform so that the product sucks, like most of its competitors! I abhor this kind of busy-bodying government.
What I want is a government of big ideas. Not a government meddling in problems that don't need government solving (or one that inserts itself in ways that make them worse). Instead of tinkering with the mechanics of my health insurance, how about the government marshaling the resources and imaginations of its citizens, in a way that only government could, to find a cure for cancer in seven years? That might reduce health care costs. How about instead of making my triplets take their teency-weency sneakers off at the airport — for fear that the kids are toting plastic explosives in their Stride-Rites — the government took on ending hunger around the world within the next 10 years. That might do something to abate terrorism.
Now before libertarians go off on me for suggesting that government cure cancer and end hunger, remember what the private sector achieved when Roosevelt called for an end to polio with the March of Dimes.
And remember Apollo — the last great goal our government set its sights on and achieved. That endeavor created massive private-sector jobs for entrepreneurial companies (Grumman built the lunar module from scratch, Rocketdyne built the massive Saturn V engines, ILC — which had been making bras and girdles — retooled to make the moonwalking suits).
But more important, Apollo created a conundrum for people like Ayn Rand — that libertarian abhorrer of big government and all things collective. Rand attended the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969, and it swept her off her feet the way Obama did Oprah. She penned a piece entitled, "A Symbol of Man's Greatness," in which she wrote:
"I heard people applauding and joined them, grasping our common motive...Frustration is the leitmotif in the lives of most men, particularly today — the frustration of inarticulate desires, with no knowledge of the means to achieve them. In the sight and hearing of a crumbling world, Apollo 11 enacted the story of an audacious purpose, its execution, its triumph, and the means that achieved it — the story and the demonstration of man's highest potential."
All brought to you by the United States government and the collective resources of its people.
We suffer today from a failure to imagine what "big" could really mean with respect to the role of government. We settle for an abusive definition of the word — large, invasive, ubiquitous.
We need to think bigger about "big." This nation needs a government that can create breathtaking contexts and provide its people with the inspiration and resources to make good on them. Not only the United States, but the rest of the world is shying away from humanity's true destiny by confusing big for sprawling. Big should mean transformational.
If we had governments with the courage to be transformational, I'd be in favor of them being as big as the cosmos.