Introduction: Why We Need to Stand Up for Government

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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manufacturers protested, and in the spirit of limiting government and getting it off the back of business, the Bush EPA rescinded those requirements in 2001.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.


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