On Receiving the Elliot Richardson Prize for Public Service

Alice M. Rivlin
Alice Rivlin
Alice M. Rivlin Former Brookings Expert

September 1, 2002

One of America’s great national pastimes is baseball. Another is government bashing. It’s such fun to encounter a troublesome government regulation or a public official who doesn’t see things your way. You can roll your eyes and say, “Isn’t that just like the government?” —and then tell your story at the office or the next dinner party to appreciative audiences guaranteed to nod and smile.

If you have a similar experience, and we all do, with a private company—its product doesn’t work or the bill is wrong—it’s no fun at all. You can’t say, “Isn’t that just like the private sector?” and get any nods or smiles. You just have to solve the problem.

Of course, government bashing is mostly recreational. In 1995, when I was director of the Office of Management and Budget, Congress voted to close the federal government rather than compromise with President Clinton over budget priorities. The congressional leadership, coming off an unusually government-bashing campaign, expected its decision to be wildly popular. But citizens were outraged that they couldn’t picnic at their national park, get their passport renewed, have their FHA housing loan approved, or get their student loan application processed.

Congress was reminded then that government did useful things that citizens need and take for granted. We were all reminded again on September 11, when police officers and firefighters and soldiers and airmen that we take for granted most of the time suddenly became the people we are all depending on to save our lives and our way of life.

One recreational benefit of government bashing is that it saves us from facing up to how hard it is to make public policy in a free market economy. Over the past half-century, it has become apparent to the whole world that market economies work much better and produce a far higher standard of living for everyone than centrally planned ones. What’s not recognized is that the easy part of a free market economy is the market part. The hard part is making the public policy within which the market can operate effectively.

We rarely think about how demanding a task we have given our policymakers. Indeed, Americans are in almost continuous high dudgeon over the failure of policymakers and politicians. We shake our heads and mutter that if only we had better people or stronger political leadership, everything would be okay. Or we blame democracy, at best a messy way to make decisions, without realizing that most of the problem is not the democratic process. It’s that making public policy for a market economy is genuinely and continuously hard.

What’s so hard? Well, first, if markets are to work, there have to be rules about property and bankruptcy and contracts and accounting standards and not injuring others in specified ways, and the rules have to be enforced. Second, there have to be social, environmental, and other public policies to handle the fact that people and companies operating in their own interest tend to load costs on to others when they can and leave behind those unable to fend for themselves. And, third, there are genuine public goods—armies and navies, police, roads, parks, public health services—that won’t be provided by private investors on their own.

Dealing with these questions is the intellectually and morally challenging aspect of a free market system. In centrally planned economies, authorities make policy by fiat, telling somebody to do something or not to do something. But in free market systems, making most kinds of public policy requires adjusting incentives and regulations just enough to accomplish a public purpose and to move activities in one direction or another without impeding the main action of the private-sector players and the productivity of their operations. The process is complex and contentious, and the participants can never get it right; they have to keep tinkering as conditions change.

Interestingly, although Americans fail to recognize how challenging public service jobs can be, they firmly believe that these jobs are onerous and unappreciated. They are sure that we who do them would much rather be doing something else.

Not on your life. Most people I know who have had careers in public service have loved their work. It used talents and ingenuity we didn’t know we had and we didn’t get to use elsewhere. It gave us the satisfaction of making the world or some little piece of it a little better.

In truth, we love our work the way baseball players love playing baseball. Baseball players don’t want that known. For if people knew they played for fun, they wouldn’t get all that money. And we don’t want it known or we wouldn’t get awards.