Government as the Champion of Justice, Equality, Freedom, and Security
Government is the main promoter of important public values, such as justice, that are essential to a good society. Without a strong public sector, life in America would be less just, less free, more unequal, and more insecure.
Do you believe in justice? That our civil liberties should be protected? That all citizens should all be treated as equals? You would probably answer, “Of course!” But do you also realize that if you are an avid supporter of public values like “justice,” “liberty” and “equality,” then you should also be an avid supporter of government? Government is often the only institution that can make these kinds of core political values a reality. In fact, without an active and healthy public sector, these kinds of public values would be in very short supply. Take justice, for instance. It is not usually something provided by the marketplace or created by the actions of individuals. More often it is something that can only be provided and sustained in the public sphere by the actions of government organizations like the courts and the legislatures. If we want a just society, we must work through government to get it.
This argument – that government is an essential mechanism for realizing vital public values – is an important one in making the case for government. Government is good not simply because it provides us as individuals with certain services and benefits (such as the ones described in another article on this site, “A Day in Your Life”) but also because it is the main way to promote important values that are good for us as a whole – values that are in the public interest. This view of government as the insurer of core democratic values is one that goes back to the very beginning of our national political institutions. Consider, for example, the political sentiments expressed by the founding fathers in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
From the outset, the American government was primarily seen as an indispensable means of establishing and promoting certain universally recognized public values, such as justice, tranquility, and liberty. And today, as citizens, we need to recognize in government what the founding fathers saw in it: that it is the only institution we can rely on to nourish and protect these kinds of values in our society.
Many people actually share this value-oriented vision of government. They get involved in politics and the governing process not because they want something for themselves but because they want to promote certain democratic values – such as equality or freedom – that they feel are important. They have a vision of what the good society is and they try to use government to make that vision a reality. They vote for candidates and lobby the government not simply to line their own pockets but in order to encourage government to do what is right for society as a whole. Many people participate in the democratic process because they want to promote principles and values that they believe are in the public interest. For many people in the National Rifle Association, for example, it is not just about owning their own shotgun, it is about liberty. And for many in the Civil Rights movement it was not about using the same restaurants as whites, it was about equality.
To really appreciate the unique role that government plays in promoting these basic political principles, we need to take a more careful look at some of these key values and see how they can be ensured only by government and how they are embodied in particular policies and programs. Let’s start with justice and fairness.
Justice and Fairness
“Life isn't fair” is a favorite saying among conservatives. And the often unspoken corollary is, "So get used to it.” But most people do not want to get used to it. In fact, the desire for fairness is as American as apple pie – it is in our blood. We get riled up when people are not treated fairly and we think something should be done about it. And more often than not the place that people turn to try to right these wrongs – to make life fairer for themselves and others – is government. Government is the main provider of justice and fairness in American society. Many government policies and government institutions are explicitly designed to promote these important public values.
The most obvious manifestation of this is the criminal and civil justice system. It is the primary way we as a society ensure that criminals are punished and that wrongs are righted. This kind of legal justice is not something that can be reliably provided by the private sector. We would not want, for instance, for there to be a market in legal justice. We would not want this justice to be something provided to the highest bidder. In fact, those times when our current justice system does take on the characteristics of a market – such as when the rich are able to get off because they can afford to hire the most talented and expensive lawyers – are exactly the times when we think the justice system has broken down. Justice should not be for sale, it must be available to all people equally, and only government can provide that.
Nor can we rely on people acting outside of the law, either individually or in private groups, to provide justice in our society. All too often the result of this kind of approach is the revenge killing, the lynch mob, or the drive-by gang shooting. Justice administered outside of government and outside of the law is almost always arbitrary, inappropriate, violent, and out of control. For justice to be true justice it must be ordered by law and administered by the government.
It is revealing that even libertarians and other anti-government ideologues admit that the criminal and civil justice systems are parts of government that are absolutely necessary and cannot be done away with. They argue that running the police, the courts, and prisons are legitimate public endeavors that must be maintained even in a minimal version of government. But there is hardly anything “minimal” about the extent and costs of this justice system. It is hardly “small” government at all. The caseloads in our courts are enormous. Over 338,000 civil and criminal case filings were made in federal district courts in 2008. State courts handled nearly 28 times as many civil cases and 82 times as many criminal cases as did the federal system – with their case filings totaling over 12 million.1 Of course the vast majority of these cases were settled and did not come to trial, but these numbers give us a good idea of the enormous workload being put on our court system.
The legal justice system is also hardly "minimal" if we look at how many people it employs and how much money it cost the taxpayers. In 2006, 2.4 million people were employed in the justice systems administered at the federal, state, county, and city level. These include the police, prosecutors, judges and other staff in the judicial system, and those working in corrections facilities. And 2006, the nation spent a total of $214 billion on criminal and civil justice services.2 In short, government endeavors to establish and maintain a criminal and civil justice system are neither simple nor cheap, they are massive and very expensive. They require a healthy and adequately funded government.
Consider what happened in 2003 when anti-government activists successfully lead a campaign to stop a desperately needed state tax increase in Alabama. Part of what suffered as a consequence was the administration of justice. Alabama already was spending too little on its justice system, and its state prisons were a disgrace. The state allocated only half of what the rest of the country allocated per prisoner and the prison system housed twice as many prisoners than it should. With the failure of the tax increase, 5,000 inmates had to be let out of the prisons before finishing their sentences. The lack of tax revenue meant that other parts of the criminal justice system were also undermined. Funds for the courts were cut by 10 percent, which meant laying off 400 employees. This included probation officers who were needed to keep track of recently released prisoners. And finally, public safety spending had to be cut by 18 percent, including state troopers. This meant that there were only seven troopers to patrol all of the state roads between midnight and 6 a.m. The lesson here? You get what you pay for in a criminal justice system and if you want to reduce taxes you should be prepared to live in a less safe society.
Social and Economic Justice
It is important to see that the government is not only the sole source of legal justice, it is also where people usually go to promote social and economic justice as well. Americans have a strong moral sense that people should be treated fairly and that people should get what they deserve – irrespective of their class, race, gender or age. And again, the mechanism of government is usually the only way that this kind of social fairness and justice can be effectively promoted. Many government policies – from minimum wage laws to anti-discrimination rules– exist primarily to ensure that Americans are treated fairly.
There is little in the private market that promotes economic or social justice. For example, the market does not ensure that people will be treated fairly as employees or as consumers. Some businesses will treat their employees and customers fairly, but some will not. Some will exploit their workers and hire and fire them arbitrarily. Some will not give their customers a fair value for their money. You can complain to the Better Business Bureau, but it is unlikely to have any real effect. So most people turn to the government and the government has responded with a variety of laws that are designed to ensure that people are treated fairly by businesses. One of the most obvious manifestations of this is anti-discrimination laws. Firms cannot hire and fire people based on their race, gender, or age. Nor can they deny a service or product to someone on the same unfair basis. We also have a variety of consumer protection laws – like lemon laws – that work to ensure that consumers get a fair shake from businesses. We also have anti-trust laws to prevent companies from creating monopolies and oligopolies that can then use price-fixing to charge consumers unfair prices. Since fairness is not an inherent attribute of markets, government is needed to inject that value into economic relationships.
Interestingly, however, businesses also rely on government to ensure that they are treated fairly. “Fair competition” between companies is a basic requirement of an efficient and productive market economy. But fair competition does not come naturally to the marketplace; it must be created and enforced by a variety of government policies. Left to themselves, many businesses would not treat their competition fairly. They would dump goods on the market at below cost to drive their competition out of business. They would try to restrict their competitors’ access to vital goods and services. And then there are the blatantly criminal activities that some businesses would use to eliminate fair competition. In countries like Russia, with poorly funded and poorly functioning public sectors, organized crime plays a significant role in the economy and stifles competition with threats, beatings, kidnappings, and murder. Far from wanting to be left alone by government, most corporations rely on various government agencies and regulations to ensure that their competitors do not have an unfair advantage over them.
The government has also intervened to ensure economic fairness in other ways. Most people would probably agree that it is unfair for businesses to exploit workers and pay them slave wages that nobody could possible live on. People deserve a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. That is exactly why we have minimum wage laws – to ensure that everyone gets a semblance of fair pay for the work they do. This kind of commitment to economic fairness also underlies the Earned Income Tax Credit program of the federal government. Supporters of this law – both Republicans and Democrats – believe that if people are willing to work hard and not rely on welfare, then it is not fair for them to live in poverty. So the EITC utilizes tax credits to subsidize the income of low-income families by several thousand dollars a year. This program has proved to be one of the most successful policies in lifting families out of poverty in the U.S.
Many other government policies are necessary to ensure that life is fairer and that people actually get what they deserve out of life. The whole idea of Social Security is that it would be intolerably unfair for people to work hard all their lives and then be forced to either not retire at all or to live in destitution in their old age. There will always be, of course, some unfairness in life. But this doesn’t mean we must accept it or not try to eradicate it whenever we can – that is part of our moral responsibility. We can make life much fairer than it naturally is, but we must usually employ the institutions of government to make it so. So while conservatives are right that “Life isn’t fair,” it would be more accurate to change that saying to “Life, without government, isn’t fair.”
“Security” is sometimes not thought of as a democratic value in the same way as more obvious things like “justice” or “freedom.” But creating a safe and secure society and protecting people against major threats to their welfare are important functions of democratic governments. This was clear even to the creators of the Constitution, who listed “insure domestic Tranquility,” and “provide for the common defense” as central reasons for establishing our democratic government. They understood that an ordered, peaceful, and secure society is not possible without the constant action of government.
From the beginning, our democratic government was primarily concerned with our physical security – ensuring that the country was immune from outside attack, that citizens were safe from criminals, and that they were protected from threats like fire. But as our society has evolved, new threats to the welfare of ourselves and our families have emerged, and people have been able to use democratic government to help deal with these risks and create a more secure society. Citizens have organized themselves into lobbies and political movements that have demanded that the government lessen the serious risks associated with such things as economic depressions, excessive inflation, loss of a job, dangerous workplaces, environmental pollution, lack of health insurance, retirement insecurity, dangerous products, serious illnesses or disability, terrorism, bank failures, investment fraud, earthquakes and other natural disasters, and so on.
All of these things are worth worrying about because they can inflict major harm to our families and us – some can even ruin our lives. Modern governments and many of their policy programs have developed in large part to manage and minimize these kinds of serious risks to our well-being.3 Of course, we can do some things individually to try to minimize some of our risks. We can drive carefully; we can avoid smoking, we can eat more healthily; we can try to save more money, and so on. But for many of these risks, there is little we can do alone to effectively avoid or manage them. Such things as job loss, cancer, environmental pollution, terrorism, crime, industrial obsolescence, and economic downturns are basically out of our control as individuals. So we must act collectively to try to manage these risks – and that is where government comes in. In many cases, government programs are the only way to make our lives more secure. And the benefits of these programs go beyond merely minimizing these risks, they also allow us to be free of the constant anxiety and fear that would plague us if these risks were not managed effectively.
Government efforts to manage risks and increase our societal security basically take two forms: policies that share and reallocate risks, and policies that lessen risk. Risk-sharing policies usually take the form of social insurance programs that spread the risk around to a large number of people. Most of what we think of as social welfare programs – Social Security, Medicare, and so on – are in fact social insurance programs design to redistribute risks. It is no coincidence that we call these programs a “social safety net” – they are designed to allow us to live our lives with the knowledge that the government is there to catch us if we fall. So we all contribute to the Medicare program, and when we get old and sick, that program is there to take care of us – even if we don’t have the money to pay for that care ourselves. Social Security is not only there to give us some retirement security, but it also helps those who become disabled and unable to work. Even programs like food stamps and welfare, which may seem like redistributive programs aimed exclusive at the poor, do in fact have a broad social insurance dimension to them. Many Americans are only a job loss, a divorce, or a serious illness away from poverty. In fact, studies show that over fifty percent of Americans will become poor at some point in their life, so poverty programs actually act as a safety net for large numbers of citizens.4
Governments also try to actually reduce risk rather than just spread it around, and this usually involves some kind of regulatory policy. Environmental policies lower the risk that we will be poisoned by the air we breathe or the water we drink. Consumer regulations protect us from unscrupulous businesses that would cheat us or sell us dangerous products. Other rules minimize the workplace dangers and diseases. Governments also engage in regulating the larger economic system itself. Capitalist economic systems are prone to a whole host of malfunctions, from runaway inflation to prolonged depressions. The economic crisis that began in 2008 is only one of the latest examples of these problems. Modern governments use monetary and fiscal policy to keep in check these serious threats to our economic well-being. For example, the Federal Reserve board regulates interest rates to make sure that the economy is not growing too quickly or too slowly. And government can increase its spending to stimulate a stalled economy. Without this kind of macro-economic regulation by government, our welfare would be constantly threatened by these serious economic problems.
Even before the financial system meltdown, it has become clear that Americans are now living in a time on increased economic risks. People’s incomes have become less secure as wages stagnate, part-time jobs proliferate, and income inequality increases. Globalization has made many more jobs less secure and put more companies themselves at risk of going under. More and more companies are defaulting on their pension arrangements with their employees. More businesses are also not offering health insurance or are making their workers pay more for it. Ironically, as these risks increase, anti-government activists seem more interested in getting the government out of the risk management business. While in office, President Bush trumpeted his plan for an “ownership society” in which people would take much more individual responsibility for such things as their retirement and health care arrangements – all in the name of increasing their “freedom” and reducing their reliance on government. His plan to privatize part of Social Security and have people risk part of their retirement funds in the stock market was one primary example of this approach. But as James Surowieki has written in the New Yorker, this approach would have only resulted in making people much less economically secure:
The ownership society promises freedom, but at the price of a huge shift in risk, away from government and society and onto individual citizens. Social Security, Medicare, insurance – these are basically collective risk-sharing mechanisms. Rather than let each person run the risk of ending up destitute or sick, these programs pool the risk. Because the risk is shared, it can be managed, and people can be guaranteed a minimally acceptable outcome. In Bush’s brave new world, that guarantee will be eliminated.5
Conservatives are often very inconsistent – if not hypocritical – in their view of whether government should be providing security. On the one hand, they are often critical of government efforts, like social programs and regulations, which try to manage and reduce risks for our families and us. But on the other hand, they are obsessed with national security and are willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on that. They also support dozens of laws and programs that serve to minimize risks for companies and markets. For example, corporations are shielded by limited liability laws in every state. Bankruptcy laws also play a major role in protecting corporations from financial risks. Regulations that stabilize the money supply also work to minimize risks for businesses. So for conservatives, strong government action to protect us against foreign threats and to reduce the financial risks to business is highly desirable. They only oppose government risk management when it involves policies that protect the public.
During the last 100 years, government has emerged as the major way that we as a society increase our security and manage the uncertainties of modern life, and so any systematic attempt to cripple or reduce government will inevitably tend to make us less safe, less secure, and increase our burden of worry and anxiety. To the extent that we see security as an important public value, then, we must also value government and the government programs that help us to collectively shelter ourselves from the dangers and threats we all face.
Equality is another basic American value. It has been a part of American political culture ever since the Declaration of Independence observed that “all men are created equal,” which at the time was a very radical and revolutionary idea. Today, as back then, Americans deeply believe that no one is inherently better than anyone else – that we all deserve equal respect and equal treatment no matter who we are. But once again, this is a value that can really only be promoted by government. The equality fostered by government takes several forms. One is legal equality, which was a central concern of the founding fathers and a major focus of many of the amendments in the Bill of Rights. In a democracy, we are all equal before the law. We have the same legal rights and protections – we have the right to a lawyer, a jury trial, property rights, and so on. We have all become so used to these rights of equal legal treatment that we sometimes forget that they only exist because our democratic government mandates and enforces them.
Democratic government also promotes political equality. What separates democracy from other political systems is the idea that all citizens should have the same amount of power. Rich or poor, male or female, black or white – we should all have an equal say over what government does. Instead of rule by those who have the most power or the most money, the ideal of democracy is that we all deserve to share power equally. Government attempts to make this ideal a reality by conducting free and fair elections. In elections, everyone has exactly the same amount of political power – one vote. It is one of the rare situations in life when we all have the same power. This is intended to give everyone an equal chance to determine who will run the government. In practice, of course, other forms of power – such as campaign contributions – also have an influence over who wins elections. But that is exactly why there has been great pressure to enact campaign finance reform – so that the power of special interest money can be limited or eliminated in elections. The campaign finance reform movement aims to make sure that it is the vote – the only power that is allocated equally to all – that finally determines who rules in our government.
Government is also the only societal institution that is in a position to promote another kind of equality – economic equality. There is, of course, a great deal of disagreement in this country over what degree of economic equality is desirable. How much poverty is acceptable in the richest society in the world? Should we try to create more equal economic outcomes, or simply try to ensure equal opportunity? Can we have true equality of opportunity in a society with vast differences in wealth and income – in a society where some grow up in neighborhoods plagued by violence, drugs, and inferior schools? But while we debate these questions about economic equality, what is not debatable is that only government can create more of it. The market obviously does not do this – it is in fact responsible for the growing disparities in wealth and income that we have been experiencing over the last several decades. But government can use a variety of policies to lessen these economic inequalities. Minimum wage policies are, for instance, an effort to raise up those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder and create more economic equality. The Earned Income Tax credit is another policy mechanism for boosting the earnings of low income Americans. To the extent, then, that we want to address economic need and promote more economic equality, we have no choice but to turn to government.
Freedoms and Rights
When most people think of the defining characteristics of a democratic society – those that separate them from non-democratic societies – the first thing they usually think of are individual rights and liberties. A democratic society is a free society – with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, property rights, the right to a lawyer and a jury, the right to vote, and all the other protections we enjoy as individuals. But what we often forget is that these crucial rights and freedoms are enacted and protected by government. They are created in our state and federal constitutions, and our courts are the watchdogs that we use that prevent our rights and liberties from being violated. (For a more elaborate version of this argument, see the article, “Government as the Primary Protector of our Rights and Liberties.”)
Once again, there is virtually nothing in the private sector that protects these vital liberties. In fact, it is the propensity for private individuals and organizations to create oppressive and intolerable conditions for people that has led to a demand for a steady expansion of the rights and freedoms of individuals in America. Workers have organized and pressured the government to ensure their right to strike and their right to labor in a safe workplace. Environmentalist groups have fought numerous political battles to establish and protect our rights to breathe clean air and drink pure water. Women, the elderly, the disabled, and minorities have lobbied to free themselves from discrimination and segregation in the private sector. All of these groups have worked through government to increase their rights and liberties, and these are only guaranteed through various government policies programs that are created and maintained by various governments.
In short, we rely heavily on government to create and nurture the vital liberties that we have come to enjoy as part of our life in this democracy of ours. This fact, however, is lost on anti-government conservatives. In their view, government is actually the primary threat to our liberties and that is one of the main reasons it must be reduced to a minimum. (For a detailed rebuttal of this allegation, see the article “More Government Does Not Mean Less Freedom.”) I will not repeat the arguments of that article here, but simply point out that while democratic government can at times threaten our freedoms, it more often functions to protect and expand the freedoms and rights of average Americans.
The overall point is this: to the extent that we cherish important public values like justice and equality, we need a public sector strong enough and well-funded enough to make these things a reality. Conversely, attacks that weaken government also weaken it as a force for good in our society. They are attacks not simply on specific programs but on core American values. When a Republican Congress limits the use of class action suits, this limits our access to justice. And a refusal to raise the lagging minimum wage is a denial of fairness to low-income workers. If anti-government zealots succeed in their efforts to cut taxes, restrict social spending, and roll back regulations, we will then have a society that is less just, more unequal, less secure, and more unfair. In short, a less decent and less civilized society. Is this the kind of world we want to live in?
To read more about how government serves as an essential instrument for promoting higher values, see "Doing Good Through Government."
1."Workload of the Federal Courts Grew in Fiscal Year 2008." http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/PIO/news/2009/fedCourts_040109.asp. See also, Brian J. Ostrom, et al., "Examining Trial Trends In State Courts: 1976-2002," Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Volume 1, Issue 3, 755-782, November 2004.
2. Figures from Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Nation Spends $167 Billion On Criminal And Civil Justice Services,” May 2, 2009. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/eande.htm
3. See David A. Moss, When All Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).
4. Mark Robert Rank, One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 93.
5. James Surowieki, “The Risk Society,” The New Yorker, Nov. 15, 2004, p. 40.