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.

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