Doing Good through Government
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Of course social programs are not the only way we use government to come to the aid of our fellow citizens. We also use the regulatory process. We pass rules that lower injuries at the workplace, keep unsafe products off the market, and ensure that medicines actually work. Such regulations are necessary to protect all of us from the risks and harms caused by unfettered corporations and market forces. Environmental regulations allow us to extend this protective process beyond the human community and act as caretakers for the earth and all of its creatures.
Even many conservatives acknowledge that compassion is an important goal of public policy. When he first ran for office, George W. Bush repeatedly called himself a “compassionate conservative” – a clear admission that this virtue has a great deal of public appeal. The problem of course is that, once in office, President Bush consistently championed cuts in many social programs that helped the needy, such as Medicaid, food stamps, and the low-income fuel assistance program. He also rolled back workplace safety rules and neglected enforcement of regulations to protect the environment. These actions raised serious questions about how truly committed to compassion Bush really was. Can you be compassionate if you consistently undermine the use some of the main tools of compassion in our society – social programs and regulatory rules? It would be like a doctor who claims to care for her patients and yet steadfastly refuses to use antibiotics and painkillers in their treatment.
Caring for each other through government is a noble endeavor and an expression of the best of what is in us. And so if we really believe in compassion, if we really believe that we have an ethical obligation to be "our brother's keeper," then we must also support an active and well-funded public sector that serves as one of our main means for acting in this moral way.
Markets versus Governments as Moral Instruments
But if we are going to say that government is an important instrument for moral action, shouldn't we also say that the market is too? After all, the market does do an enormous amount of good by providing the products and services that we all need – and in this way it has certainly made the world a better place for many. Doesn't that make the market a moral tool as well? Not really. As any economist will tell you, markets are not the realm of moral behavior; they are the realm of self-interested behavior. Economists firmly believe that markets do work in the public interest, but they see that as an indirect effect of people acting in their own private interest. In unregulated markets, people are often encouraged to act selfishly to maximize their own well-being – by paying the lowest price, charging the highest price, getting the biggest salaries, or putting their rivals out of business. People are not obligated to take into account moral considerations, such as what is best for society or what is the right thing to do.
For example, consider the different ways that markets and governments respond in the aftermath of a disaster like an earthquake or flood. Governments and charities rush in with aid to those suffering in the affected areas – a moral response. But the natural response of economic markets is to price gouge. The shortages of such things as food, water, ice, and building materials caused by such disasters means that the demand for these things are very high and merchants can charge prices much higher than normal.
This does not mean that markets are bad or that they are immoral – that is not true either. Markets are simply amoral – that is, morality is not relevant consideration and so sometimes the results of market processes are good and sometime they are bad. That is why it is morally dangerous to rely on markets to produce the public good. While markets are incredibly useful and productive institutions, they are only moral insofar as they are structured to serve moral purposes for society. And that is why we need government as a way to pursue our moral goals – so that we can do the right thing when the market fails to do so. Government can subsidize the building of low-cost housing when the private sector fails to meet that need, or provide health insurance to those who can't afford it. In contrast to markets, the aim of governments is usually to do the right thing for the public – to do what it is the public interest. This is what makes government the primary site of moral action in our society.
This is not to suggest that democratic governments always do the right thing. We and our government have certainly made clearly immoral decisions in the past – such as when public policies supported slavery or the removal of Indians from their native lands. And there is certainly heated disagreement today over whether our state governments are pursuing the right policies in terms of abortion or gay marriage. But what is important to see is that democratic government is an ongoing moral enterprise – a public search for the right thing to do. It is a process of constantly re-imagining and re-inventing what it means to live in a good society.3 We can certainly deny the morality of specific policies, but what we cannot and should not deny is that government is the main place in which we as a society collectively debate moral issues and where we have to decide the right course of action. Of course government sometimes fails to do the right thing, but that doesn’t mean that it still isn’t engaged in a moral endeavor.