KBLG has been running a promo for "The Radio Factor" in which Bill O'Reilly says that the only things that government can do are run the military and collect taxes. Even allowing for the usual O'Reilly exaggeration, this seems like an awfully short list.
And I'm not even sure it's accurate. Does government really run the military that well? Granted, the United States has the most powerful military history has ever seen. But since armies are nearly always run by governments, the U.S. military can't really be compared to a private sector army, can it? And while I don't doubt that the U.S. Army today is a better-run outfit than the one I served in 35 years ago, certain inefficiencies common to any bureaucracy appear to be built in to the military hierarchy.
To give just one of many possible examples: Since I was stationed with a small detachment of soldiers on the East German border, we had to drive to Bremerhaven to conduct much Army business: medical appointments, shipping goods, clearing up paperwork. On narrow and crowded German roads, it was about a seven-hour round trip, and a military vehicle generally made the run at least once a week.
One week, the Army changed its policy and decided that soldiers had to have an appointment before they could conduct any business in Bremerhaven. Nobody told us, of course, and we drove up as usual. And even though the clerk in Army personnel appeared to have nothing whatever to do, he wouldn't help any of us -- a half-dozen soldiers wasting a full day apiece for absolutely no good reason. This sort of thing happened all the time, and nobody in charge cared very much because nobody had to meet a bottom line.
Still, I don't really want to know how a government-run army would stack up against a privately run army because I don't want big private armies running around out there. This is one monopoly I'm happy for government to keep. The same goes for prisons and courts of law, where I'm willing to accept a little government inefficiency in exchange for the power to vote for or against the people in charge.
Beyond all that, it seems to me that government does do some things well -- at least as well and perhaps better than the private sector. A few come to mind:
1. National parks. Does anybody think that Yellowstone would be a better place if Disney ran it? I don't.
2. Campgrounds. Sight unseen, I would prefer any federal or state campground over
any private campground. In my experience, government-run campgrounds are nearly always prettier and cheaper. The amenities may not be as good, but I don't care much for amenities when I go camping, and I don't like camping close to people who do.
3. Highways. A few privately funded highways have been built in high-traffic areas, but government-built highways suit me just fine, even allowing for the occasional bridge collapse.
4. Public libraries. Nothing else comes close.
5. Mail service. People always bitch about this, but I have never understood why. Almost without exception everywhere I have lived, mail service has been reliable and cheap, and postal employees have been pleasant to deal with. I don't argue that my experience is typical, but I have no gripes.
6. Customer service. Another supposed government weak point, but again it doesn't fit with my experience. Private sector customer service keeps getting worse, in my view, and government service keeps getting better.
7. Fire protection. Who complains about the fire department?
9. NPR. Not strictly government run, but it gets a few federal dollars, and it is vastly superior to commercial radio in every respect (except sports coverage).
That's not a complete list, but it's a fairly big chunk of what government does. And while you certainly might argue that turning all those services over to the private sector would save a few tax dollars, it's hard for me to see that we would ultimately really be better off.
UPDATE: Two more I neglected to mention:
1. Trash pickup. I never even see those guys, but the trash is always picked up.
2. Water. In all the cities I have lived in over the years, I can't recall that I ever once had any contact with a municipal water department. Why? Because I never once had a problem -- water always has been cheap, plentiful and clean.