We are locked in a seemingly permanent debate over the proper size and scope of government. It was a centerpiece of the recent presidential campaign. It features heavily in the ongoing maneuvering over the "fiscal cliff" and the upcoming vote on raising the debt ceiling. And it surfaces regularly in the speeches and comments of politicians and opinion leaders who either take the government to task for growing too large or argue that it needs to play an even more active role than it does now.
I don't expect this argument to end anytime soon -- after all, it's been a feature of political life for as long as any of us can remember. But no matter how we view the role of government, there's one thing most of us do agree on: whatever government does, it should do it well.
Recently, I read a compelling speech by a prominent corporate CEO who criticized the federal government for creating an environment of uncertainty and stifling the engines of market growth -- and then went on to lay out plans for economic renewal that all involved the government: a revamped education policy, more investment in infrastructure and in basic research, changes to the tax code to reward innovation. His speech underscores a basic truth about American life: We can argue about the fine points of its reach, but the importance of government's role in our lives is inescapable.
This does not mean that government is the answer to everything -- far from it. Nor, however, does the anti-government rhetoric that so often marks our politics show much sign of being rooted in reality. When we want to build roads and bridges, operate schools and keep our cities safe, create conditions under which businesses can thrive, respond to natural disasters or attacks on our security, we turn to government at some level. And we expect the people who run it -- the leaders as well as those on the front lines -- to be good at what they do.
As Alexander Hamilton put it, "A government ill-executed, whatever may be the theory, in practice is poor government." You don't want second-rate scientists doing cancer research, second-rate lawyers negotiating arms control treaties, second-rate bureaucrats helping your community recover from a hurricane or flooding, second-rate inspectors making sure your hamburger is free from E. coli, or second-rate air traffic controllers guiding your plane through crowded airspace. None of us wants to live with a government that is incompetent in the exercise of its important functions.
For this reason, Americans are not as anti-government in practice as their "get government off our backs" rhetoric would often suggest. We turn again and again to government to solve the problems we complain about. And however easy it might be to rail against Washington or against "big government," it's the institutions of government you turn to when you need them.
Constructive criticism of Congress is always appropriate, but the anti-government language that so often gets bandied about creates distrust of the very institutions we rely on to meet the challenges and solve the problems that confront us as a nation. I sometimes find myself wondering how far we can erode confidence in our officials and our government and still have a country that works.
Whatever the particular policies of a given administration, whatever programs are enacted by the Congress, the American public is entitled to have those policies and programs administered effectively, efficiently and competently. This cannot be done without skillful civil servants and a steady stream of talented people who are attracted to public service.
My sense is that the public is demanding more from government, not in size, but in performance. Americans want government to work better for less, and the only way to achieve this is for government to become more effective and productive in dealing with the challenges before us.
• Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.