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Opinion

We shouldn't debate whether government is 'good' or 'bad'

If elected officials want to raise taxes endlessly, that's up to them, but it doesn't absolve them of actually solving the problems they're purporting to fix, argues Bradley Tusk.

We shouldn't debate whether government is 'good' or 'bad'

Framing the debate as government as solely good or bad, effective or inept, is intellectually dishonest and ultimately dangerous, writes Bradley Tusk.

Photo: Getty Images

Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, political strategist and writer.

It's embedded in the debate the tech and financial sectors are having right now. The overt question is whether tech companies and hedge funds should stay in familiar but expensive states like New York and California or relocate to the warmer, less taxed, less regulated environs of Florida and Texas. But within that choice is a far deeper and more important question, one as a society we keep getting wrong.

The argument for the high taxes and regulations of New York and California is around equity: We need to use government as a mechanism to help those in need, even the playing field, keep people in line. The argument for the opposite in Texas and Florida is around logic: Government is inept, corrupt and incompetent, so the more that we let people and businesses keep their money, the more good will come of it. The problem is, neither assumption is true.

I've spent much of my career in government and politics. I worked in city government for Mike Bloomberg, in Washington for Chuck Schumer, and I spent four years as the deputy governor of Illinois, overseeing the state's budget, legislation, operations, policy and communications. I remain involved in politics today, and my consulting firm is running Andrew Yang's campaign for mayor of New York City.

But I'm also a capitalist.

I founded and run a venture capital fund. I'm the chair of a publicly-traded company on the Nasdaq. I own multiple businesses. I believe in free markets, free enterprise and free trade. But I also know that the assumption that I can do everything better than the public sector is patently false — just as I know from decades of hands-on experience that assuming the government can successfully tackle any problem is equally false. In reality, the choice isn't between individuals and government. It's between effective government and ineffective government.

Government serves all kinds of purposes that individuals simply cannot. To form an army, build roads, provide clean water, ensure that food or drugs are safe to consume and determine rules to balance competing needs, you need collective action. Whether it's government, tribes, gangs or anything else, people innately form groups to perform the tasks beyond our individual capacities. At the same time, the notion that once the government takes on an issue, the problem is solved is absurd; and yet it's an assumption that only grows worse as the political zeitgeist moves to the left.

On one hand, we have prominent politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who believe that once you pass a piece of legislation on an issue, you've solved the problem. Anyone who has stood in line for a passport or a driver's license or waited for a permit or sat in endless traffic delays while a dozen construction workers stand around chatting knows the opposite all too well. But on the other hand, anyone in the private sector who thinks that they could have built a great company or invented a groundbreaking new technology without the advantages given to us by having a (somewhat) functional democracy; a (broken but not totally kaput) infrastructure system where we can rely on clean water, power, gas and now internet service; an education system that attempts to give everyone the basics; a health care system that, one way or another (often wildly inefficiently) makes sure most people have care; and so on is completely deluded. Just like technology builds on the advancements of our predecessors, so do people.

Businesses are fleeing New York and California because no matter how well-intentioned their legislatures are (both governors are in political hot water), it's been proven over and over again that just blindly throwing money at a problem doesn't fix it. That's why people resent higher taxes. And yet it's exactly what both states are doing. The choice we're currently offered between wanting to solve societal problems like income equality, social justice, homelessness, bad schools, uneven health care, climate change, violence and so much more and what it takes to actually solve those problems is false. It's not something that gets fixed just by generating more tax revenue, and it's not something that gets fixed by just leaving it to the private sector. It gets fixed by having competent leadership that understands the value proposition they're asking local businesses to buy into and ensuring that the government is consistently delivering on their end (a clean, safe, well-run, dynamic city). It gets fixed by being willing to say no to powerful groups and people, whether it's unions on the left or ideologues on the right. It gets fixed by having an elected official who fundamentally understands the role, purpose and abilities of government in the first place.

On the other hand, abdicating responsibility for improving people's lives through collective action is equally problematic (as witnessed by the recent widespread infrastructure and energy failures in Texas). We can have a government that attempts to seriously solve complex problems and expect that government to actually deliver tangible results. We can have a government that determines that more money is needed to address any particular issue without then either assuming that once they collect the money, the problem is solved or that their responsibility ends with good intentions and a hit on MSNBC.

Ultimately, no one wants to live in a "Mad Max"/"Blade Runner" society, even if all of the individual choices that get us to that point seem beneficial to us at the time. And ultimately, a government that tries to tackle every problem and control all of the economy's resources to do so only works if it actually succeeds — not just by hoping for the best. Neither path is desirable or sustainable. If business leaders want to flee San Francisco for Austin or Manhattan for Miami, that's their call, but it doesn't absolve them of the need to participate in solving our underlying problems; it will come back to bite them in one way or another. If elected officials in Sacramento or Albany want to raise taxes endlessly, that's their call (if they have the votes), but it doesn't absolve them of actually solving the problems they're purporting to fix.

In other words, in a society that's divided in every conceivable way, framing the debate as whether government is solely good or bad, effective or inept, is intellectually dishonest and ultimately dangerous. Each side can glorify its position and feel morally or intellectually superior to everyone else, but it's only a path to ruin. We need government to solve problems individuals cannot. And we need government to actually succeed in executing its approach to the problems, rather than just relying on slogans, tweets and hyperbole. They're not mutually exclusive. But it does require all of us — in government and in business — to do much, much better.

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