By Devon Swezey and Jesse Jenkins
It is fashionable these days to paint the government as a useless yet ravenous institution, the expansion of which will turn America into a third world country - or, worse yet, France.
Even the Economist, a respected, moderate publication, has recently taken to framing the government as a hideous Leviathan consuming private business, and everything else in its path.
But according to a new column by conservative commentator David Brooks, the hysterical, anti-government ideology that has taken root within even mainstream corners of the Republican Party is driven by an "oversimplified version of American history, with dangerous implications."
Writing in the New York Times, Brooks reminds his fellow conservatives that the history of American innovation and economic strength is one of "limited but energetic governments that used aggressive federal power to promote growth and social mobility."
"George Washington used industrial policy, trade policy and federal research dollars to build a manufacturing economy alongside the agricultural one. The Whig Party used federal dollars to promote a development project called the American System.
Abraham Lincoln supported state-sponsored banks to encourage development, lavish infrastructure projects, increased spending on public education. Franklin Roosevelt provided basic security so people were freer to move and dare. The Republican sponsors of welfare reform increased regulations and government spending -- demanding work in exchange for dollars."
Certainly, this country's innovative private businesses and intrepid entrepreneurs have been central to making America the world's leading economy. But time and again, America's entrepreneurs have succeeded with the full and active support of the federal government, without which, things may have turned out very differently.
As the Breakthrough Institute documented in our 2009 report, "Case Studies in American Innovation," the story of American innovation is one of enduring partnership between the public and private sector, where smart public investments have catalyzed entrepreneurialism and innovation and paved the way for so many of the great American technological and economic success stories of the 20th century.
Time and again, public-private partnerships have driven the development of whole new industries, and created the conditions for leading private sector companies to thrive. Without the public sector as both an initial funder and demanding customer, the vibrant industries built around great American innovations in communications, aerospace, semiconductors, computing, biotechnology and many more may have sprouted up elsewhere, or not at all.
Giving credit where credit is due, former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, one of the nation's greatest entrepreneurs and business leaders, recently noted that early government investment in information technology was central to the success of Microsoft and so much of the IT revolution that propelled Americas economy in the later years of the 20th century:
"The Internet and the microprocessor, which were very fundamental to Microsoft being able to take the magic of software and having the PC explode, were among many of the elements that came through government research and development."
Indeed, the catalytic investments of the federal government have been central to the success of countless leading American firms, including HP, Apple, Genentech, Boeing, and Dow Chemical, along with hundreds of the small businesses and entrepreneurs that are the core of America's economic strength.
According to R&D Magazine, a quarter of the top 100 innovations in America each year consistently come from small businesses that are funded by one federal program alone--the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.
Many conservatives, and indeed many liberals and environmentalists as well, have forgotten this history, and believe that the private sector is most innovative when the government is most absent.
Yet, as Brooks reminds us, the greatest American Presidents, from Washington to Lincoln, to Roosevelt, didn't build their philosophies or their policies around small government or big government, but smart government:
"Government is a means, not an end. They built their philosophy on making America virtuous, dynamic and great. They supported government action when it furthered those ends and opposed it when it didn't."
This "long, mainstream American tradition" is imperiled by the reflexive anti-government ideology of the surging Tea Party, now fighting for the soul of today's Republican Party.
For America to remain a great nation in the 21st century, smart government policies and investments will be essential. Whether or not those pivotal investments are made may hinge on the ability of conservatives and liberals alike to overcome this collective amnesia about what made this country great in the first place.
This post originally appeared at the Breakthrough Institute
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