Introduction: Why We Need to Stand Up for Government
page: 2 of 3
But what exactly does it mean to say that government is good? It means that, on balance, government programs have a very positive impact on the lives of all Americans – that government has been a powerful force for good in our society.
It is not an exaggeration to say that a good portion of the improvement in the quality of Americans’ lives during the last 100 years has been due to the efforts of our federal, state, and local governments. Consider, for instance, the wide variety of vital roles and functions that big government plays in our society. Things like providing roads and sewers and other essential infrastructure facilities, preventing economic depressions, eliminating horrible diseases like polio and smallpox, ensuring drinkable water and breathable air, dispensing justice, providing retirement security, preventing business abuses, sponsoring stunning scientific breakthroughs, feeding the hungry, recalling unsafe products, educating our children, reducing workplace injuries and deaths, responding to disasters and emergencies, preventing crime, protecting civil liberties, rescuing endangered species, ensuring the safety of drugs, guarding our national security, caring for the elderly, and so on.
Seen this way, it is clear that the supportive role that government plays in all our lives is indispensable. We are usually told that the high quality of life enjoyed by so many people in the United States is due to the abundance created in the private sector, but in fact it is also due to the many activities of the public sector. The good life as we know it in the United States literally could not exist without the constant assistance and protection we all get from an extensive network of government laws and programs. Efforts by anti-government politicians to drastically cut taxes and reduce government programs have put this good life in jeopardy.
Let me be clear about what I am not arguing here. I am saying that government is good, but not that every particular government is good. People often say they dislike the government when what they really mean is that they dislike the policies of the current Democratic or Republican administration – such as the Bush regime’s war in Iraq or its failures in responding to Hurricane Katrina. But just because the policies of a particular administration are bad doesn’t mean that government as an institution is bad. That would be like condemning film as a medium just because you are disappointed with the current crop of movies. This website is about the value of government as an institution, because that is what is under attack by conservatives. They are trying to undermine the basic enterprise of modern democratic government itself– with its substantial commitment to social programs and regulation – and that is what I am defending. I am arguing that the large democratic state and the basic functions it fulfills have been good – very good – for Americans.
Also, while this website offers a vigorous and unapologetic defense of government, it is not denying that this institution is flawed in some ways. Of course it is. Some waste is inevitable, some politicians are corrupt, and some regulations are boneheaded. In addition, our government is not as responsive and democratic as it could be and special interests play much too dominant a role in policymaking – problems to which I devote an entire article (see What is Really Wrong with Government). Much can and should be done to deal with these kinds of problems.
Clearly government is far from perfect; no human institution is. But that doesn’t mean it is bad. Consider ourselves – none of us are perfect either. Virtually all of us have lied many times, cheated at least a few times, done some dumb things as a teenager, repeatedly broken traffic regulations and perhaps other laws, neglected some of our responsibilities, abused alcohol or drugs on at least a few occasions, made some terrible mistakes on the job, said things we deeply regretted, fudged on our taxes, betrayed a confidence, and treated at least one of our relatives very badly. But that doesn’t make us bad people. And we would resent it if someone leapt to that conclusion by blowing our faults out of proportion and cavalierly ignoring all the good things we’ve done in our lives.
But this is exactly what conservatives do to government. They not only ignore what is good about government, they also take the problems and mistakes of government and inflate them into a wholesale condemnation of that institution. The articles on this website take a careful look at what conservatives contend are the “evils” of government, look at the research concerning these problems, and find that most of them are exaggerated, misleading, or sometimes simply wrong. Take, for example, one of their frequent criticisms of government: that government bureaucracies are constantly growing and continually wasting enormous amounts of tax payers’ dollars. This is a common stereotype about government and it has now become the number one citizen complaint about this institution. Many Americans believe, for instance, that the government wastes forty-eight cents of every tax dollar. In reality, studies show that the amount of waste is more like two cents for every dollar – hardly an alarming figure.1 And what about the charge that the federal bureaucracy is growing at an uncontrollable rate? Not true either. In 1970, 2,997,000 civilians worked for the federal government; by 2010, that figure had grown to – or rather been reduced to – 2,841,000. In 1970, federal bureaucrats made up 3.8% of total U.S. workers, while in 2008 they made up a mere 1.9%.2 So much for the ever-growing federal bureaucracy.
The articles on this site will show that most of the other right-wing criticisms of government are off the mark as well. It is constantly being alleged, for instance, that Americans are hugely overtaxed, that big government inevitably impinges on individual freedoms, and that government is the natural enemy of business. But under examination, none of these things turn out to be true. In the end, much of what we think we know about what is wrong with government – and what conservatives keep telling us – is simply mistaken.
Anti-government conservatives can only maintain the illusion that government is bad by promoting these distorted stereotypes and by turning a blind eye to all the contributions that public sector laws and programs are making to our lives. But if we can begin to look at how government actually works and see clearly the various roles it is playing in our lives, then we can begin to develop a much more accurate, complete, and complex view of this institution – and one that turns out to be much more positive.