08/09/2010 08:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Get Rid of (Bad) Government

Common wisdom is often common self-deception. We seem to be deceiving ourselves a lot these days as we respond to the drumbeat that government needs to be cut down, cut back, and cut out. There is no question that millions of Americans dislike and distrust what they see happening in Washington. But they are not quite ready to throw out their hopes even if they throw out the politicians who seem to be dashing them.

Since Tea Party rallies do not routinely ask people to pledge to turn in their Social Security and Medicare cards, take their relatives out of Medicaid, or abolish most federal agencies, what we have is a movement sparked more by revulsion than revolt. Even those who hate the current government seem to like the concept if not the practice. They actually agree with much of what it aims to do.

A recent poll by the Center for American Progress offers a useful perspective. (Yes, this is a "progressive think tank - read "liberal" if you wish, but the 2,523 adults responding to the May 10-23, 2010 poll included 62 percent who think the nation is on the wrong track and 39 percent self-identified as conservative or libertarian (only 28 percent as progressive or liberal)).

Asked whether the federal government should be more or less involved (or not change its involvement) in the following five areas, here are the percentages who said the feds should be "more involved":

• Developing new clean energy sources: 61%
• Improving public schools: 60%
• Making college affordable: 60%
• Reducing poverty: 57%
• Ensuring access to affordable health care: 51%

Asked whether the priority should be improving government or reducing its size, 41% of Republicans and 45% of conservatives opted for the former.

Asked how well the government works in different areas, these are the percentages for "excellent or good" in five of those areas:

• Being customer-friendly and providing quality services: 21%
• Helping you and your family: 19%
• Accomplishing their goals: 16%
• Being well-run and effectively managed: 14%
• Spending money efficiently: 7%

Important goals, failed execution. Big needs, bad results. These slogans seem to capture the American taxpayer's mood better than "Taxed Enough Already." In this context, anger over taxation is understandable. Who wants to pay for poor performance? If your car is a clunker, your temper flares every time you have to make a payment.

Yet we have to be careful about the analogy. Taxpayers may think of themselves as consumers of government, anxious to withhold payments or reduce the charge for services they don't like. But we are citizens not consumers. We have obligations not account balances. We are purchasing common goods (national defense, homeland protection, a clean environment, public education, etc) not private ones. We can trash the auto companies and still buy a good car somewhere, but we can't continue to trash government and expect to get good governance somewhere else. We can live in a world without GM but not in one without Uncle Sam.

As citizens, the survey suggests that we know government is important, we see what it needs to do, and we have a right to demand that it do it better. In this light, excessive attacks on government from the right or left only undermine the shared resource on which we all depend. Bashing your clunker with a sledgehammer in a public ceremony may allow you to vent your anger, but in the end you'll just have a worthless car on which the payments will still be due.