Introduction: Why We Need to Stand Up for Government

We need to better understand the indispensable roles that government plays in our society, and we need to come to the defense of this unfairly maligned institution.

 

Why do we need to stand up for government?  Because for decades, this valuable institution has been unfairly attacked and maligned by right-wing forces in this country.  To make matters worse, parts of the mainstream media have eagerly joined in this government bashing.  Hardly a day goes by on Fox News without one their conservative commentators gleefully lambasting  "wasteful" social programs, "ridiculous" regulations, and the "socialist" politicians who support those "stupid" things.

Until now, those who have been attacking government have been doing a much better job than the few who have been trying to defend it.  For example, Republicans have been waging their anti-government campaign on two fronts.  First has been the attack on specific government programs, from welfare and Medicaid to environmental protection and business regulation.   Second, and perhaps more important, has been the effort to delegitimize government itself – to convince Americans that government is a bad thing that should be limited whenever possible.

Unfortunately, many centrist and liberal politicians have been fighting back on only one front.  They tried, during the Bush administration, to defend particular public sector programs from attack, including Social Security and environmental protection.  But until recently, they have not been aggressively defending the idea that government itself is valuable and beneficial.   They have not been making the positive case for a healthier and more active public sector.

Actually, it was worse than that.  Beginning in the 1980s, some Democrats beat a retreat away from the notion that government is good. They routinely reinforced anti-government stereotypes by focusing on its negative aspects, such as complaining about government waste.  Many also supported damaging tax cuts and ill-considered deregulation efforts. And some Democratic candidates even joined Republicans in running against Washington and “big government” in their election campaigns. Consider the words uttered by Bill Clinton in his 1996 State of The Union Address: “We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there’s not a program for every problem. … The era of big government is over.” These kinds of statements inadvertently added legitimacy to the right-wing crusade against government. One conservative journal, the Weekly Standard, was so excited about Clinton’s statement that they declared on their front cover “We’ve Won!”

Clearly many centrist and liberal lawmakers understood the valuable and indispensable role that government plays in our society, but many seemed to believe that if they too jumped on the anti-government band-wagon, this would take the issue away from the conservatives. But this strategy utterly failed. It only added fuel to the anti-government fire that Republicans had been stoking for years. Far from abandoning this issue, the right only pressed harder in their efforts to delegitimize government and reduce liberal programs.

It is important to see that this Democratic retreat represented an enormous change from the more positive attitude toward government – even big government – that was common in the earlier parts of the twentieth century. Then, many politicians and members of the public embraced big government as the only thing that could counter-balance the power of big business, prevail over the big foreign threats of fascism and communism, and solve big societal problems like economic depressions, racism, and environmental pollution.

Fortunately, the election of Barack Obama seemed to signal an end to the liberal retreat from government.  He has portrayed himself as a champion of government and has pledged to reinvigorate the public sector.  He understands that we still face big problems as a society – problems that only big government can solve.  These include our financial crisis, global warming, persistent poverty, an ongoing healthcare crisis, an unsafe food supply system, vastly unequal educational opportunities, a deteriorating infrastructure, and a looming pension crisis.  And the American public seems to increasingly appreciate the vital role that government programs can play in confronting these difficulties.

But despite these hopeful signs, it is clear that the battle over government is not over.  While the Republicans are presently in retreat on the national level, they still control many state and local governments and continue to pursue an agenda of cutting taxes and slashing government services.  And even in Congress, many conservatives continue to espouse the gospel of small government and they have opposed  the President’s effort to revive the economy, improve education, promote renewable energy, etc.

So there is still a need to make vigorous and reasoned case for government.  It is crucial to continue to make the argument, as this website does, that government has a vital and indispensable role to play in improving the lives of all Americans – that government is good.  

Government is Good?

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.

Defending Government, Not Particular Administrations

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.

“Flawed” Does not Mean “Bad”

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.

What is at Stake in the Battle over Government

Why is it so crucial to set the record straight about government? Why is it important for Americans to realize that their local, state, and federal governments are in fact acting as powerful forces for good in our society? Because the negative images of government that are being constantly promoted by conservatives have had widespread and damaging political repercussions. These distorted views of government have been used to fuel and justify the conservative campaign to drastically reduce government – to slash important social programs and rollback regulations that are protecting investors, consumers, workers, and the environment.

In recent years, Americans have become all too aware of what is at stake in this battle over government.  They have lost billions of dollars in investments due the mortgage loan crisis and the resulting meltdown of the financial system.   It is clear that lack of effective regulation of financial institutions was a major contributor to this economic disaster.   Also, thousands of Americans have gotten sick because of lax and under-funded food inspection programs – thanks again to Republican hostility to the regulation of business.   And the lack of regulation of off-shore oil drilling helped to cause one of the largest environmental disasters in our history.

Furthermore, these well-known examples of the disastrous results of the attack on government are merely the tip of the iceberg.  There are literally thousands of other cases of how cutbacks on government programs have led to increasing problems and suffering for the public.  Consider just one example – the deregulation of rat poison.  In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency mandated child-proofing of rat poisons that were manufactured in candy-like pastel pellets. It required that the pellets have a bitter taste and a bright dye. But some manufacturers protested, and in the spirit of limiting government and getting it off the back of business, the Bush EPA rescinded those requirements in 2001. By 2004, poisons centers were reporting that 50,000 children a year were requiring treatment for ingesting rat poisons – three times as many as when the childproofing requirements were in effect.3

We must also consider the long list of problems caused by cutbacks in state and local programs.  Across the United States we have seen teachers laid off, firefighters and police officers fired, bridges in disrepair, state colleges made less affordable, libraries closed, reductions in health care, and so on.   Many Americans have seen the quality of life in their communities suffer because of these efforts to reduce government.

But the problem with the conservative anti-government campaign is not simply what we have lost, but also what we have not gained. Because of this long-standing effort to limit government in the United States, we have been unable to expand our public sector efforts to deal with new or growing problems.4 This means that our citizens have had to forgo many of the beneficial public programs adopted by most other Western countries. Studies now show that because of our more anemic public sector, Americans have been more likely than European citizens to lack health care coverage, to be poor, to drive on dangerous roads, to breathe dirty air, to drink less safe water, to have less access to good public transportation, and to be less economically secure. Less government here has also meant that we have less affordable daycare, a higher infant mortality rate, more job-related injuries, less affordable housing, and a lower life expectancy.5

We have a lot of ground to make up.  But this is only possible if we as a nation recognize that government can and should be a powerful force for good in society.  That is why we need to come to the defense of government.


1. Joseph Nye, et al, Why People Don’t Trust Government (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) p. 62.

2. U.S. Government, Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011) .

3. “Childproof/EPA Eases up on Rat Poison,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 22, 2004, editorial page.

4. For more on this point, see Jacob S. Hacker, “Privatizing Risk without Privatizing the Welfare State: The Hidden Politics of Social Policy Retrenchment in the United States,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 98, No.2, May 2004, pp. 243-60. Hacker also has a book on this topic, The Great Risk Shift..

5. See Derek Bok, The State of the Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996) pp. 368-371.