Successful Government Programs — A Partial List

I got to thinking.  Last week I was challenged to name ‘a single” successful government program.  I’m always amazed at how often I get asked this question, and how every time the questioner seems amazed that anyone could name one —  that the whole idea of a useful public program is ridiculous.

So, in 20 minutes of thinking (most spent formatting), here are a few:

National Security:  1.  U.S. Army and Marine Corps.  2.  WWII and the Cold War.  3.  The  nuclear nonproliferation treaty.    4.  U.S. contributions to the U.N.’s World Health Organization’s successful effort to eradicate smallpox worldwide (they did).

Education:  1.  University of California (e.g., Berkeley and UCSD).  2.  Pell grants for college for low-income citizens.  3.  The GI bill.

Public Infrastructure:  1.  Interstate highway system.  2.  Hoover Damn and the Lincoln Tunnel.    3.  Rural electrification.

Environment:  1.  Clean Water Act.  2.  Clean Air Act.  3.  sulfur emissions cap and trade system to eliminate acid rain (carbon cap and trade would be modelled on it).

Social Insurance:  1.  Social Security (It is a myth that it is going bankrupt; it’s on a sounder footing than any other USG program).   2.  Medicare (yes, it is going bankrupt, but it controls costs better than the private insurance sector.  Also, it has administrative costs equal to 2% of total program costs; Most private insurers are around 20%.  3.  The Earned Income Tax Credit (originally Milton Friedman’s idea).

Financial Stability/Consumer Protection:  1.  Federal bank deposit insurance.  2.  Glass Steagal Act (repealed in 1999 by a lapdog Congress).  3.  The banning of lead in consumer products, probably the most underrated contribution to human health in American history.

Justice:  1.  The Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.  2.  Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Other:  1.  National Institute of Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.  3.  NOAA and NASA.  4.  My 20 minutes just ended.

What About the Failures?   Excellent point.  I’ll do another post on them, later.  Ideas/arguments?


20 responses

  1. I would add the banning of CFCs, which successfully ended the damage to the ozone layer and allowed it to heal itself.

  2. WOW!!! I offer the above post as a shining example of how far standards of “success” have fallen. It would take volumes to expose all the errors in judgement required to classify all these governmental blunders as successful. Almost none were done on or under budget and most “social programs” have done far more harm than good. If a condition of success is staying within budget, NONE of the things listed would qualify.

    I didn’t see the elimination of smallpox or polio in the list. These were actually successful and worthwhile albeit over budget. Social Security IS going bankrupt. It would have eventually anyway, but it is happening sooner because politians “blew” all the money that should have been set aside for retirement of citizens by “borrowing” it for anything and everything they could think of.

    Bottom line…government programs are rarely a true success and virtually always WAY, WAY more expensive than projected. There is nothing more inefficient than a government program.

    1. The condition of success is an improvement in the quality of life. In that regard there are many programs that have achieved that. And we have and will continue to fund programs that are worthwhile, if we have the will.

      1. An improvement in the quality of life is not a sufficient requisite for success when standing in a vacuum. If a system can not be sustained in the long term than any “success” its users enjoy is borrowed from the future.

    2. Actually, the Salk vaccine was funded by the March of Dimes organization, not the federal government.

  3. I listed winning WWII, the Civil Rights Act, federal bank deposit insurance, and the laws that cleaned up our heavily-polluted air and water, and your main complaint is that they came in over budget? Jees.

    As for Social Security, it is fully paid for until about 2040. After that, the surplus built up in the trust fund since 1983 will be exhausted, but the program will still keep taking in enough money annually (through the FICA tax) to pay about 75% of promised benefits.

    So, minor fixes — a mix of small benefit cuts, raising the retirement age, and taxing benefits for upper income recipients (take your pick)– could close the gap completely. Name any private company that has prefunded any activity through 2040 and could promise to keep it funded with only minor changes for the next 75 years!

    You also imply that the Treasury bonds that comprise the SS trust are worthless because they will never be paid off. If so, then why are Treasury bonds the most widely held security in the world, and why do they carry a zero risk of default? Are you right and the entire rest of the world wrong? This does not pass the laugh test.

  4. Erie canal?

    Panama canal?

    Transcontinental railroad?

    1. Absolutely. And, the generation of infrastructure that we built after WWII (the ones you mentioned, of course, were earlier)is now wearing out. Google the American Association of Civil Engineers, or some such name. They keep track of how worn out our basic public works are and how many trillions it would take to fix or replace it.

      That’s why a big chunk of the Obama stimulus bill went to infrastructure. The spending serves dual purposes: stimulates the economy in the short run, and invests in our future growth, too.

  5. Let us not talk about the Social Security “trust fund.” There is no such thing and never has been. It is a program of income redistribution, pure and simple.
    The surplus in the so-called “trust fund” has been used to make the deficit appear smaller, that’s all.

    It works, of course, because those now being taxed can look forward to having income
    redistributed to them later.

  6. On the Treasury bonds held by Social Security: How will they be paid off? (Which
    they will be)?
    Taxes, and more borrowing?
    And how is Social Security financed?
    Taxes, and more borrowing.
    Something of a shell game going on here? You bet.
    For years, tax surpluses have been diverted to Social Security. In future, tax revenues will be used to pay it. It’s really quite simple.

  7. This is sort of off topic but earlier this year I was asked the question “what would you do with one trillion dollars?” the question was brought from a discussion that the government ( spending 60 percent of our tax money on military ) has spent about one trillion dollars on the war in Afghanistan since it has started. I have to make a video on what i would spend the money on. But you seem to be far more familiar with the government programs. And I would like to ask YOU. what would you spend the one trillion dollars on? Of course, relating to our government. Education, military, science, employment or anything that you think. This is the reason I was brought here. I was researching the question what are some of the most successful programs in our government. I would love to contact you or
    Have a conversation with you if you have the time. I hope you get a chance to reply. But on the above topic, I loved it. It was great.

  8. What about the TVA (tennessee valley authority)? A public corporation which provided thousands of jobs, used US concrete, steel, and labor during the depression, made millions of acres of land tillable for struggling farmers by controlling flooding, and virtually eradicated malaria in a 7 state region; still today providing the cheapest electricity money can buy.

    And let’s not forget the by-product of this public sector investment. Hundreds of thousands of acres of pristine recreational lakes in which entire communities sprang. Businesses, million dollar homes, boat and car dealerships, stores, marinas, eateries, schools, etc… Without the TVA, the recreational lake industry and trillions made in the last 70 years would not exist as we know it.

    So a socialist program in the 1930’s, basically jump started capitalism beyond our wildest dreams along the shores of our famed TVA lakes.

  9. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    One wonders what process of ideological bamboozlement must be going on, that anyone could come to the conclusion that there are no successful government programs.
    Presumably the alternative would be to have no government, or some sort of 18th century, laissez-fair government which did very little. We could also go back to the horse and buggy, and the quill pen.
    Of course, that might have much to recommend it. But does anyone think it will really happen?

    1. “Earned Income Tax Credit” is only a sucess if you’re not making any money. If you’ve put in the time and effort to attain marketable skills, it looks like a slap in the face give away program.
      One wonders what delusional herd mentality causes so many to think that a large expensive government that treats it’s citizens like small children is a good idea.


        I watched as my step brother collected a check for 7 grand every year for getting fired from multiple jobs.
        Would rent to own big screen and new furniture only to lose it a month later.
        Same thing every year.

  10. James H. Zimmerman | Reply


  11. Meaning the Apollo space program. You know, landing on the moon and all?

  12. Example of successful govt. program? It sure was.
    Or was it? Real scientific results, not much. A few rocks. Maybe development of some new technology.
    But prestige? We beat those Russkis to the moon!
    That must be it! LOL

    As reply to Robert above: Maybe the govt. would not have to treat people as small children, if large corporations treated them as responsible adults and objects of love in themselves (as Kant would say), rather than subjects of exploitation.

  13. And almost none of them were addressing poverty or other social issues other than to eliminate discrimination. By my standards none have been a success, they have helped some and hurt others, and cost a lot of money.

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