Doing Good through Government

Government programs are often one of the most effective ways that we express caring and compassion toward our fellow human beings.

In America, we often think of being moral and doing "good works" as things we do in our private lives. For example, when we think of institutions that are doing good works, we tend to think of organizations like churches and charities that operate privately. Giving blood or volunteering at our local soup kitchen are the kinds of things that come to mind when we want to help others in our community—when we want to be responsible and moral people.

But if you really think about it, the institutions that do the most "good works" in our society are not churches or charities; they are our local, state, and federal governments. These governments do an enormous amount to feed the hungry, heal the sick, take care of the old, protect the young, and so on. In fact the good created by these governments far exceeds all the good accomplished by churches and charities in our society. When we think about some of the greatest moral achievements in our history, it is often the American people acting through their government that brought them about. It is government that abolished slavery and ended child labor. It is government that has saved millions of lives through public health programs to eradicate diseases. It is government that has drastically reduced poverty among the elderly. It is the government that is saving us all from the widespread suffering and despair caused by economic depressions.

On any measure, the good works accomplished by government have far eclipsed those of churches and other charities. And this makes sense, because the resources of these private institutions are very limited compared to the resources wielded by government. So while my local soup kitchen feeds dozens of people a week, it is the federal food stamp program that is primarily responsible for greatly reducing hunger among the thousands of poor in our community. On the surface, it seems that charities may spend large amounts on helping the needy in our society – after all, Americans give about $240 billion to philanthropic organizations annually. But this figure is misleading. Most of the money raised by charities and non-profit organizations does not in fact go to those in need. Most of it goes to programs and facilities – like the YMCA, art museums, colleges, medical research, public television stations, churches, etc. – that primarily serve the middle and upper class people who donate the money. Only about 10% or $24 billion goes to fund human service programs for the needy. And only half of that amount – about $12 billion – goes to services for low-income families.1

In contrast, the federal government alone spends over $200 billion a year on programs aimed at poor and low-income families, including welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies. Moreover, government also funds much of the anti-poverty and anti-hunger work done by charitable groups and non-profit human service organizations. Catholic Charities USA, which provides emergency food and shelter to the poor, gets 65% of its budget from the government.2 So it is clearly the government that is carrying the bulk of the load in caring for the neediest people in our society. Private charities and non-profits simply do not have the means to deal adequately with poverty, homelessness, hunger or virtually any of the serious problems that are causing suffering in our society.

So while most of us do not think of it this way, government is actually one of the main ways that we act as good people in the world. Our contributions to government in the form of taxes go to fund a wide variety of programs and services that have eliminated enormous amounts of suffering and vastly improved millions of people's lives. Democratic government is in part a manifestation of our desire to be responsible moral people, and it is the primary institutional mechanism that we use to make the world a better place.

Government as our Main Instrument of Compassion

One of the best examples of government as a moral instrument is the way we use it to express compassion and caring toward one another. One of our highest moral responsibilities is to try to allay the suffering of our fellow human beings. The most obvious examples of this kind of public compassion are, of course, social programs. Programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, unemployment, and disaster relief are some of the major ways that we as a society express compassion for each other. They are the way we try to relieve the suffering of old age, illness, poverty, and natural disasters. Sometimes we support social insurance programs like unemployment relief for selfish reasons, because we ourselves might need to use them at some time. But often we also support them even if we know that we probably won't need them – because we care about the people that do.

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.

Government and the Higher Values of Life

Michael Lerner is an author, rabbi, and editor of the magazine Tikkun. In his book, The Left Hand of God, he makes an eloquent argument for how politics can and should be a means for pursuing our desire to be compassionate and caring human beings. He believes that many Americans are experiencing a spiritual crisis – that they find themselves living lives where "feelings of emptiness, disconnection from others, and isolation have become common."4 He traces much of this problem to our capitalist culture, which promotes a view of life informed mostly by selfishness and materialism. We spend most of our working lives in business organizations, he points out, where competitive individualism and greed are the highest values and where we pursue our own interests, often at the expense of others' interests. Our participation in the market economy often seems to be mostly about acquiring money and things.

Many people, Lerner argues, want more than this from life – they want lives where they can express their higher values and where they can feel a real connection to their fellow human beings. Some people seek this kind of more meaningful life in private spiritual quests, but Lerner suggests that we should be seeking it through the public sphere as well. He calls for the pursuit of "a meaning-oriented approach to politics." An approach that has as its focus "the yearning of human beings for a world of love and caring, for genuine connection and mutual recognition, for kindness and generosity, for connection to the common good, to the sacred, and to a transcendent purpose for our lives."5 Political activity, he suggests, can allow us to pursue our most cherished values in a way that we cannot in our private lives or in the market.

This view of politics (and government) as a way of expressing our most humane instincts can seem naïve at first. Many people tend to see government as the realm where special interests groups try to get as much as they can for themselves – an activity motivated by selfishness and greed. There is obviously some truth to this. But that is not all of what government is about. It is also about people trying to help their fellow human beings and trying to promote what is good for all. That is why many people get involved in politics in the first place.

One of the reasons that so many Americans reacted so enthusiastically to Barack Obama’s campaign for president was that he tapped into this idea that government can be an expression of our higher values – that it can be a force for good in the world. He revived the liberal idea that it is virtuous and meaningful to work through government to solve people's problems and improve people's lives, and many voters responded strongly to this hopeful message.

Limiting Government Limits our Ability to Do the Right Thing

If modern democratic government and its programs are often a reflection of our best selves – our most decent selves – then right-wing attempts to drastically cut taxes and shrink the public sector can only serve to diminish our ability to act as responsible moral beings. The more we Americans accept the conservative vision of government as "bad," and the more we go along with their attempts to weaken this institution, the more we weaken our ability to make the world a better place. If we want to care for each other and do as much as we can to alleviate human suffering, then we need to acknowledge that government is often the best way to achieve those goals.


1. Barbara M. Blank, It Takes a Nation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 202.

2. Blank, p. 203.

3. Thanks to Michael Lipsky at Dēmos for making this point to me.

4. Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) p. 56.

5. Lerner, p. 158.