The sub-headline on Robert Samuelson's column states: "Reagan Understood Private Enterprise and That's What Worked" (Op-Ed Page, Jan. 11). He implies that, in the main, his sharp reductions in government oversight and regulation have been beneficial for the country and stemmed from the fact that "Reagan understood (as many economists do not) that private enterprise is the economy's central engine of growth."
This analysis is based on the underlying assumption that the unfettered expansion of "the economy" is good for the country and the principal role of government is to stay out of its way except for aiding entrepreneurial expansion without being overly concerned about the side effects. Even if this were an acceptable proposition, the Reagan Administration's record is still quite shaky, as Samuelson himself points out: Look at the budget deficits, the trade deficit, the condition of our banks, the levels of consumer debt, the overtaking of the United States by the economic machines of other countries and other features. But the main objection to this mode of assessing the record is that it seriously distorts the purposes of government regulation and oversight in a democracy.
If, as he says, many economists do not understand "that private enterprise is the economy's central engine of growth" the vast majority of the American people understand it very clearly. There is no serious challenge to that idea in this country. What many of us seriously question, however, is the notion that this engine should be encouraged to run as fast as it possibly can without considering what it is that it is supposed to be driving. Our economy's central engine is supposed to be providing a better life for us and especially for our children. All engines are created by people and are meant to be run by controls--braking and steering as well as accelerating. Our economic engine threatens to irreversibly poison our land, air and water, destroy our natural recreation areas, and damage the ozone layer.
With all its great productive capacity we have some 35 million persons who have no dependable access to health care, large numbers of homeless persons (involuntary ones), a runaway drug problem, and deteriorating schools. What many of us expect is that government will regulate this enormously productive engine so that not all its force is used to produce high economic indicators. Some of it should be directed to actually improving our lives and those of our children. In this the Reagan Administration has failed sadly, not only in letting many of these problems of living get worse, but in fostering a climate in which serious attempts to directly better them have been ridiculed and tarred with the brush of name-calling catch phrases like "big government" and "taxers and spenders."
We really have a right to expect that our social scientists, including economists, look at our society and not just one--dimensionally at "the economy" when they offer us guidance about economic policy.