The raputurous transports of enthusiasm evoked by the successful flight of the first space shuttle bear unwitting witness to a central paradox of national life. Americans hunger for public achievement, but also seek to reduce the power of government. The gulf between those two conflicting impulses measures the distance the country has yet to travel before it regains confidence and balance.
The public hunger for national success goes well beyond fascination for space gadgets. Almost all Americans want less inflation, faster growth and more jobs. The great majority favors a stronger stance against foreign adversaries, and a better showing in economic competition against other advanced countries. Most would love crime rates to come down, air to be cleaner, housing to be cheaper and schools and other public services to be better.
Dismal experience during the past decade drove home the impression that government was an obstacle -- in many minds, the obstacle -- in the way of those goals. Ronald Reagan drew on that feeling to win the election, and he has made an assault on government the central theme of his administration.
Deep cuts in federal spending for all items except defense are the president's first priority. The second is a huge transfer of tax dollars from the public to the private sector. Deregulation of industry is the third. Where regulation survives, a forthcoming study by the National Journal shows, the agencies are systematically being turned over to the industries they are supposed to regulate.
The Democratic opposition differs with the Republican administration on the duration of the tax cut, and the distribution of the spending reductions. But only in small degree. Nor is the Democratic program simply a cynical holding operation by party wheelhorses. The central figures are young members of the classes of 1974 and 1976 who stand in the liberal mainstream of the party. There really is a national consensus on cutting back government.
Despite the consensus, however, the anti-government approach seems highly unlikely to yield the advertised results. Some of the most prized objectives simply lie beyond the reach of private effort. Maintaining American power in the world necessarily depends on the federal government. So does space exploration. It is notable that the Reagan administration, far from dragging its heels as in so many other areas, is all set to name a new director and associate director of the space agency: namely, James Begg of General Dynamics and Hans Mark, the former Air Force secretary.
The free enterprise system as it works in practice excludes other goals. Does anybody believe the mining and chemical companies are going to keep the water and air clean without a hard shove from government? Who can imagine that reducing funds available to the big cities will improve police work, or services, or local education?
Nor can chronic inflation -- that foremost curse of the times -- be blamed entirely on government. Spectacular price rises flowed from action by the oil companies that made this country dependent on unreliable foreign sources. King-size wage increases, negotiated in free collective bargaining between companies and unions, constitute the inertial force that imbeds inflation in the system, and spreads every price hike throughout the economy. The only way to moderate that force is by concerted action among government, business and labor to restrain the wage bargains.
But how can the country get from where it is to where it needs to be? Many devices for changing the Constitution or the nominating system of the parties have been advanced. One that looks particularly promising to me is the proposal -- by William V. Roth, the Republican senator from Delaware -- for a new Hoover Commission to help Congress "restructure government to make it more efficient and creative." The more so because the proposal includes developing a coalition of business and labor leaders to build a constituency for change in the country at large.
Still, the central difficulty goes beyond mere devices. It arises from an unresolved conflict in public opinion. The U.S. exhibits a yearning for ends that can be achieved only by means that are deemed unacceptable. The country allows itself a big appetite but insists on having poor teeth.
An outside shock -- another oil shortage or a major recession -- might break the stalemate. But otherwise, the country will have to hope that a long, slow process, whereby one success builds upon another, will gradually wither away the preposterous notion that using government for public goals is somehow taboo.