Wednesday, April 8, 2009

10 Reasons Why We Need Big Government

For two and a quarter centuries, leaders of the United States have struggled to remain faithful to the Constitution, the ingenious new plan for a country devised by its founders—individuals who labored for years to refine their insights and achieve consensus. In general, their plan has served us well, and we have grown as a nation.

Things have changed a bit, of course, and the vast institution that governs this vast nation has had to change, too. In 1776, there were about 2.5 million people living in the colonies that became the first states, and only a small fraction of them (adult white male land-owners) were privileged to participate in decision making. There are now over 306 million U.S. residents, 65% of them eligible to vote. At the country’s start, communication could travel only as fast as a good horse and rider; now most residents of the planet (and even those in orbit) can connect with one another almost instantaneously in a variety of ways. Other countries—most of which, in the time of our forefathers, could be reached only by means of a long ocean voyage—are now only hours away by plane (or minutes by missile).

So government has had to grow, too. This question of how large and how extensive government should be is, of course, at the root of much of the controversy between the two major political parties in the U.S. Like so many things in American politics, it’s all too often discussed and debated emotionally rather than rationally. But it’s a question that must be discussed.

So here, for the sake of what I hope will be meaningful dialogue, are the reasons I think the government of the U.S. in the 21st century must be fairly large and comprehensive:

1. To prevent exploitation of individuals by big companies and financial institutions.
2. To protect the environment.
3. To maintain the health of the national and international economies.
4. To protect the nation and its allies against aggression.
5. To foster technological and scientific progress.
6. To provide for the poor.
7. To ensure the safety of products and services.
8. To protect citizens abroad.
9. To cultivate the nation’s heritage and protect the constitutional rights of its citizens.
10. To provide consistency, communication, and coordination among the many departments, agencies, and bureaus that provide these services.

Have at it, Republicans!


Anonymous said...

Question: I've read through your entries and it is clear that you have a lot of confidence in government, especially when compared with business. I would be interested to hear why you are confident that government will do the right thing and do it better? Do you feel the same confidence when Republicans hold the majority?


Citizen Jane said...

Dear Anonymous,

What a terrific question, A! Thanks for asking! I was traveling this weekend, and your question gave me food for thought while driving.

The answer is yes, definitely. I do have far greater faith in government—specifically, the U.S. government—than I do in business. Here’s why.

First, the founders of this country were wise, well-educated, and determined to create a government that was (as Lincoln put it retrospectively) “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Thus, the purpose of the government is to do what is right and best for people. They grappled with issues that couldn’t be definitively decided at the time—notably, the issue of slavery—but they created a system that can expand and grow human knowledge and wisdom expands and grows. There is always a danger of individuals relinquishing their moral compass as they become part of a group, but at least the U.S. government is charged with and concerned with issues or morality and human well being.

The purpose of business is to make money—period. Furthermore, the fewer people who share the wealth, the more money there is for privileged individuals and their pet enterprises.

By virtue of its overriding purpose—doing what’s best for its citizens, and by extension, their world—our government is complex, messy, and evolutionary (growing and changing in many directions at once, both succeeding and failing by various measures).

By virtue of its purpose, business is simple, and its success is easily measured (at least in theory) by one yardstick—the proverbial “bottom line.”

By its nature, government must look both forward and backward, as our country’s leaders (the best of them, anyway) try to learn from history and create a legacy that will benefit our children and grandchildren. It requires its participants to grapple with complex questions of science, philosophy, and morality—anything, in other words, that touches on the well-being of individuals and society.

Business, on the other hand, does not concern itself of science, philosophy, or morality. Essentially a-moral, it benefits most by ignoring all questions but one: “What choices or policies will provide the largest immediate payoff in terms of dollars?”

So I trust that my government should concern itself with my well-being and that of my loved ones and descendants. It may not get all the answers right, but as part of the government myself, I can always make choices that may—at least in some small measure—influence that. (To say that business “should” concern itself with the well-being of individuals is patently ridiculous—unless one equates well-being with money and defines “individuals” as the small subset of COEs or shareholders likely to profit the most.)

Since the 1980s, it’s become fashionable for business to assert that what’s good for business is good for the country (one of the four pillars of Reaganomics). The implication is that what’s good for the country is good for its citizens—for you and for me. How convenient for business to have sold us all that particular bill of goods!

The fact is that since Reagan’s policies became enshrined as the guiding economic principles of the Republican Party, our country’s citizens (all but the richest) have suffered in many ways, including economically. (As the “bubbles” burst, people lose jobs, homes, and value for their dollar.) Many moral commitments—including commitments to the world, the environment, and the disenfranchised in our own country—have gone unmet. Great damage has been done during a decade and a half of Republican control of Congress and the White House.

That said, I still have faith in our government. In our country, dissenting voices can always be heard. People are not shot for disagreeing with their leaders (although, tragically, we went through a very dark period when people could be tortured for being in the wrong place at the wrong time). Change is always possible, and—thanks to our ingenious form of government—it can be accomplished without a revolution.

I will say this, though: until Barack Obama rose to national prominence and then, by what still seems a miracle, became president, I was discouraged, disheartened, and definitely losing faith. I’m still discouraged by what I regard as our national tolerance for stupidity, but I hope and believe that the national discourse will gradually become more rational, respectful, and constructive.

concreata said...

My deepest sympathy for you have been thoroughly brainwashed - and there might be little hope for recovery. Never has government been the answer, history shows just the opposite. Govt. does not produce any economic value itself. Moreover, it is largely unnecessary in order for the the free market system to operate. Government is a necessary evil and requires constant vigilance because it works like cancer - willy nilly growth for the sake of growth - invading the pockets of individuals pursuing their self interest in a marketplace, stifling innovation, and taking money from one group to give to another for political purposes. Name one country or epoch that has served the common man through big government? Zippo. Many examples of countries pursuing free market principles. If you don't understand this, please try to understand how business works, take some business classes, or in lieu of this, take the time to watch this video from Milton Friedman - select the first video called the power of the market.

Citizen Jane said...

Concreta, did you read what I wrote? There is no indication in your remarks that you did. It appears that you just responded emotionally, in knee-jerk fashion. Your remarks are a list a of assertions commonly made by extreme right-wing fiscal conservatives. Several of your statements are completely meaningless; for example, "Govt. does not produce any economic value itself."


If you want to simply keep reiterating the empty rhetoric you hear on FOX News, feel free, but I won't respond in the future (especially when you engage in personal attacks). If you want to engage in rational discussion of any reasonably debatable issue, I'd be happy to talk with you.

birdy said...

It would be interesting to see a comparison of what government had to do 100 yrs ago compared to today. We have cybersecurity now that we didn't then, environmental issues, more use of pharmaceuticals and therefore more regulatory agencies etc. I find it inadequate to say our govt is too big, when the modern age in many ways dictates that it is so.
What say you?

Anonymous said...

everything the government does though is taken from the pockets of us, without a choice. while in business, and with social darwinism, only the companies we the people choose. we do not truly choose what policies we want because politicians lie. please explain how you still believe the government is superior to the private sector. and in truth the government is a monopoly in the sense it has no competition which discourages need for innovation or competitive prices.

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Anonymous. Excellent questions.

I trust government to be able to do the right thing IF voters pay attention to politics and elect people who really want to serve--who care about individuals more than they care about money or power.

Admittedly, it's not always easy to tell at a glance whether a politician really cares about people or just says so to get the votes. That's why good citizens must pay attention to current events every day of every year and not just during election seasons.

No. I do not have confidence in Republican administrations to do the right thing. The last two GOP administrations have mired us in war, devastated the economy, been environmentally irresponsible, and made life much more difficult for everyone but the very rich. I believe the two parties have become very polarized, with the GOP standing for big oil, big companies, and Wall Street. They represent those who have the money to lavishly contribute to their campaigns.

I think it's good to have a two-party system, but the Party of No is not good for people.