Rumor has it that the Brookings Institution is a well-regarded think tank staffed by highly educated experts, whose opinions are treated with great respect by the nation’s policymakers. Unfortunately, these experts do not inhabit the same spiral arm of the galaxy as the rest of us. I base this conclusion on a widely publicized report released by Brookings at the end of last year on “Government’s Greatest Achievements of the Past Half Century.” Looking back at the last 50 years or so, most of us would have our own list of the greatest hits of the federal government, and there would be some patches of laughter amidst the tears and woe (the drug war, Vietnam, Waco—there is just so much to choose from). I seriously doubt, though, whether anyone would, with a straight face, begin such a retrospective with a line like

Looking back from the edge of a new millennium, it is difficult not to be proud of what the federal government has tried to achieve these past fifty years. Name a significant domestic or foreign problem over the past half century and the federal government made some effort to solve it. . . The proof is in the federal statutes. All totaled, Congress passed more than 500 major laws between 1944 and 1999 to improve the quality of life in the nation and world.

Most of us would probably choose a less triumphalist approach, such as “True, government did all this, but let’s forgive and forget.” It’s “difficult not to feel proud” of federal achievements, eh? Just watch me.

Interestingly, though, the Brookings Institution is not alone in its phantasmagoric universe. Seeking confirmation of its views, the babbling Brooksters conducted a survey of college educators from the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association, asking them to rank the government’s achievements since World War II. A very large number of the professors responded, permitting the compilation of a list of federal “triumphs” (I’m not joking—that’s the word used in the Brookings press releases). Heading the roster were: “Rebuild Europe after World War II”; “Expand the right to vote”; “Promote equal access to public accommodations”; “Reduce disease.” (The full report is online at

So much is wrong with this survey that it’s difficult to know where to start denouncing it. What strikes me the most is the mindset of the academics involved. I am a professor myself, and some of my best friends are professors, so I realize that some of them are not the brightest stars on their respective Christmas trees. But I am still stunned to find so many of them accepting uncritically the most extreme claims of radical liberalism about modern American history, in the face of so much massive evidence to the contrary. The worst thing about the Brookings survey is that it demonstrates beyond challenge the moral and political coloring of the American academy—and it is a pretty sorry sight. To quote Paul Light, director of the survey, “this sample offers an important glimpse of how future generations will judge the greatest achievements of the twentieth century, if only because most of these respondents will be doing the teaching.” (My God, he’s probably right.)

The greatest problem with the survey is that the answers were predetermined by the nature of the questions. Respondents were offered a number of options as areas in which the federal government had been active, but were not allowed to say that this field of endeavor might have been wholly disastrous or counterproductive. Improving access to public accommodations, for instance, may be a worthy goal; but trying to achieve educational equality by means of busing virtually destroyed urban public education across the United States and gravely damaged opportunities for all races. Such results, however, are labeled mere blips—just spots on the sun—and ignored. Once ordered by rank, the resulting list allows the Brooksters to state, in effect, that this league table represents the judicious views of American scholars about the wonders wrought by the federal government.

This picture involves sins of omission as well as commission. Notably, it suggests that any kind of progress since the 1940’s has been the work not just of government, but specifically the U.S. government. States and cities do not count-nor does science, nor business. If disease has been reduced, or water quality improved, that has nothing to do with the workings of private corporations, nor of scientific discoveries; it is because the L’.S.G. decided of its goodness that its lowly subjects needed such boons, and lo, they descended. (Response: “Let us give thanks to the G, from whom all good things flow”). Interestingly, the biggest single federal effort to reduce disease remains the war on cancer originally declared by President Nixon, and that has been less than a scintillating success.

As to sins of omission, I can think of a number of federal achievements that are not on the list and which should be highlighted, and I have no doubt that Chronicles readers could offer their own suggestions. If, for instance, we are to focus on the reconstruction of Europe —undoubtedly a key achievement—why not devote equal time to the amazing reconstruction of Japan? This could be reckoned an even nobler work, since this country was not required to go through the inconvenience of confronting its monstrously bloody wartime past, its record of rape and massacre across eastern Asia. The U.S. government saw no need to remove all those experienced and ever-so-useful militarists, war profiteers, and biological warfare experts who contributed so much to the new democratic nation.

The mention of Japan might recall other key federal achievements, such as the decision to permit that nation’s industrial dumping to cripple large sections of the American economy between the 1960’s and 80’s. Such a decision seems incomprehensible, at least until we realize how many American politicians and bureaucrats were personally enriched by the policy. The federal government has been a productive cash cow, and it is only fair to stress this record of multi-billion-dollar corporate enrichment in any list of federal achievements. Many countries talk about how desirable it is to transfer wealth, but the United States has actually done it, albeit in the wrong direction. Why be so modest?

Among the other federal triumphs, I would place many of the consequences of the civil-rights revolution, a complex and well-intentioned movement that certainly achieved much good. But it also changed American society irrevocably by destroying any pretense of states’ rights and federalism, federalizing law enforcement, and destroying the ancient prohibition on double jeopardy (“That jury may have acquitted you, but wait till we hit you with civil-rights charges”). Above all, the civil-rights revolution created an ever-spreading network of legally defined rights that demand to be enforced by litigation. Although these rights were originally defended for an authentically oppressed segment of the population, the notion soon diffused across society into the realms of women’s rights, gay rights, disability rights, and so on. Since the 1940’s, the resulting litigation explosion has transformed every aspect of the nation’s life and thought and resulted in a fundamental shift of power from legislators to judges. Arguably, this movement has changed the nature of American democracy from the concept of individual rights to one of group rights. Give the federal government its due for such sweeping achievements.

As the Brookings report rightly stresses, federal efforts have affected ordinary people in their everyday lives. I would place much more weight, though, on federal efforts against crime. The professors surveyed rated efforts to “reduce crime” only at number 36 out of 50—not surprisingly, since that endeavor has been such a mind-boggling failure. By any statistical measure, crime has exploded since the 1940’s, and prison populations have taken off into the stratosphere. I am not being inconsistent here by trying to blame the federal government for forces which were, to some extent, beyond its control: The feds were not to blame for the demographic changes which underlie so much crime. I can, however, blame them freely for deliberate policies that made the consequences of that trend so much worse: the fads in policing that resulted in cops being taken off the beat en masse just as crime rates were beginning to soar; the drug war that has criminalized and incarcerated two generations of urban Americans, creating a new and profitable class of state-supervised helots; and a full-fledged militarization of policing that might have been justified as a response to a popular insurrection, but which has no place in what is still, ostensibly, a democracy. You say “triumph”; I say “social catastrophe.”

Among the embarras des horreurs offered by Brookings, I am particularly struck by the last three items on the list, those federal “endeavors” that our academics think are the very least important, namely, “Reform taxes”; “Control immigration”; “Devolve responsibility to the states.” Each item offers a great deal of food for thought, revealing that respondents clearly do not believe in lowered or reformed taxes, any restrictions on immigration, or any role for the states in what we humorously term our “federal” system. The liberal groupthink of academe is as solid, and as stultifying, as ever.

For me, the crowning glory of this section is the phraseology of the question about “devolving responsibility to the states.” The people surveyed were professional historians and political scientists: Could none of them see what was wrong with this? If an undergraduate used such a phrase, I would wince, and then explain, as simply as possible, that a country such as France or Britain might talk of devolving responsibility, but such an idea is totally alien here. Why do you think we call it the United States?

Sometimes, surveys are not only unnecessary and misleading, but fundamentally insulting in their conceptualization. Reading the Brookings report, I imagined robbers leaving a bank, taking care to hand out survey forms to each person present, to be filled in when the victims had untied themselves. The survey would address such points as the speed and efficiency of the robbery, the cleanliness of the weapons used, and clarity of commands (“Did you feel that the phrase ‘Freeze, don’t nobody move!’ was well enunciated?” “Overall, how would you rate your victimization experience”). And if a robber dropped a bag of loot while running out, an additional question could be included about his effectiveness in giving (or devolving) money to the bank. This idea may sound whimsical, but compared to the Brookings Institution’s effort, it’s sweet sanity.