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In Defense of Government

ISSUE:  Autumn 2001

The greatest obstacle to America’s progress toward a stable society, unplagued by social ills, is not crime or drugs or a decline in family values, but, instead, a growing hostility toward government, and particularly the federal government.

The demented persons who blow up public buildings, assault the guardians of public lands, and form “militias” to oppose an imagined threat of involuntary servitude to the federal government—these are symbols of a crumbling faith among even ordinary citizens in the institutions whereby they are governed. The vociferous condemnation of government regulations; the ease with which public opinion was swayed by unprincipled propaganda against the Clinton plan for universal health insurance; the widespread sentiment for abandoning the public schools instead of improving them; the drive toward privatization of public services—these are among the phenomena that reveal a rampant distrust of “government.”

Of course, rugged individualism has always been a theme in America’s prideful thinking about itself. But the Great Depression compelled the country to realize that there are situations in which individual effort counts for nothing, when even the most resolutely self-reliant must reach for the helping hand of government. The ensuing onset of World War II reversed the situation, demanding the subordination of personal goals to the national need. But both crises enhanced the public perception of the necessity of a strong central government. And this mental stance was sustained by the deep-rooted fear of communism that gave birth to and continued the Cold War.

The real war in Vietnam, however, and what eventually came to be recognized as its senseless bloodshed, delivered a telling blow to the public’s faith in the federal government. And what remained was further diminished by the forced resignation, unique in American history, of both a vice president and a president for having betrayed the public trust.

On the other hand, the immense personal popularity of President Reagan lent authority to his professed policy of “down-sizing” the federal government, based on the unquestioned assumption that the satisfaction of the desires of private persons takes precedence over the “general welfare” that it is the stated purpose of the Constitution to “promote.” The resonant admonition of John F. Kennedy—”Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—no longer echoed in the national consciousness. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union freed the country from its obsessive fear of communism; and the general national prosperity erased any serious anxiety about an impending economic crisis.

The result of all this was not only a lessened trust in the federal government but also the perception of a lessened need. And from this state of mind it was only a short step to outright hostility to some undefined entity called “government,” as being self-serving and incompetent, wasting “taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars” on activities that, if really needed, could be better performed by the “private sector”; and, beyond this, intruding arbitrarily into the affairs of business. Government does not, it is confidently asserted, offer solutions to people’s problems; it is itself the problem.

The assumption here, admirable in itself, and not less so because it clashes with most of human history, is that the proper goal of any form of social organization is the greatest possible freedom for the individual. But this freedom is, and must be, limited. What the critics of government do not see is that the relation must be reciprocal. It has never occurred to them, for instance, while vehemently asserting their right to do what they like with what is theirs, that the very concept of “private property” could not exist without some land of government. “Ownership” means that the government has recognized and agreed to protect whatever possessions have been legally acquired. Without this guaranteed right of ownership, a person would have to defend by force everything that he calls his, in accordance with what the satirical rhyme calls:

Nature’s good old plan
That he shall take who has the power,
And he shall keep who can.

There would then be a genuine justification for “the right to bear arms.”

It follows that since government confers the right to own property, it has at least a limited right to say how that property shall be used. If draining a wetland or clearcutting a forest area is judged to be harmful to the community as a whole, no one can rationally deny that the government has a right to prohibit such activity.

And the need to subordinate individual goals to the welfare of the group is strengthened by the technological revolution that is now taking place with astounding speed. Advances in transportation; even greater—indeed, almost miraculous—expansion of means of communication; the movement toward mergers in every area of economic activity, and the consequent vast increase in corporate power; the many motives and incentives to the geographical mobility of the population; the pressures of globalization on the perceived national interest—all these changes, irresistible and irreversible, give rise to forces that state governments are helpless to control, and whose guidance demands a national effort. Economic security, higher educational standards, the control of crime, universal access to effective health care, the preservation of the natural environment— these call for a national consensus in regard to attitudes and actions, to values and their implementation.

The notion that “the age of big government is over” is a delusion. Nevertheless, many persons cling to the view that, where there is a question of state or federal jurisdiction, it is the former that will best serve society’s needs. And in this attitude they are following a long tradition—”states’ rights” as a preferable alternative to federal authority. It is the contention of this essay, however, that this attitude is, and always has been, an impediment to progress toward the proclaimed national goal of “liberty and justice for all.”

To begin with, the Constitution itself arose from the obvious need for a strong central government. The Articles of Confederation, which were the first attempt to achieve a formal and permanent union among the colonies, were shaped by the recollection of British tyranny and the fear that a strong new government might likewise trample on the painfully won freedom of states and individuals.(The Declaration of Independence speaks of “free and independent states.”) Hence, there was no central executive or judiciary, and only a weak one-chamber legislative body, in which each state had one vote, and nine votes out of 13 were necessary to pass legislation— which there was no instrument to enforce. The Articles conferred no power to tax, or to regulate commerce among the states.

The inevitable result was that the new nation began to fall apart, and the conservative forces that were dominant agreed on a new Constitution that gave the central government sweeping powers to establish and maintain a unified and orderly society; while acknowledging the fears of those in whom the spirit of rebellion was still strong by setting up a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches (the power of the judicial branch had yet to be asserted and accepted), and by framing a “Bill of Rights,” namely, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

The states’ rights principle, however, did not die. But whereas it was originally libertarian in spirit, it became and has remained an instrument for defending the status quo and an excuse for opposing every effort to protect and extend the basic rights of individual persons. The Southern side in the Civil War asserted that the main issue was not slavery but states’ rights, and even so high-minded a person as Robert E. Lee placed loyalty to his state above loyalty to his country. Moreover, for a century after the war, the same principle supplied a facade for the denial of even the most basic human rights to the former slaves and their descendants. Federal anti-lynching laws were rejected as an unjustified usurpation of state authority, with the result that blacks could still be murdered with impunity. Likewise, the South attempted to find in this doctrine a legal defense of its continuing discrimination against blacks in every area of society. And today, as racism slowly and grudgingly dies, the principle is asserted in support of the efforts of ideological groups to impose their religious beliefs and ethical systems on those in whom conscience decrees a different creed and code. It inspires attacks on national standards in education, and tries to force the use of school textbooks that present myth as truth and faith as fact. Likewise, anti-abortionists try by the use of state statutes to limit women’s constitutional right to reproductive freedom.

So much for states’ rights. Another and still more powerful instance of anti-government ideology is the belief in the inevitability and desirability of a laissez-faire, or, more euphemistically, a “free-market” economy, in which government intervention is not merely futile but harmful. Arguments concerning the validity of this concept have filled libraries, and cannot be repeated here. But in practice its apostles have found it more expedient to appeal to process rather than principle. Hence the constant complaints about the “federal bureaucracy,” which is accused of ignoring the urgent appeals of business for relief from the “regulations” that are said to strangle individual initiative and obstruct the economic progress that would otherwise be achieved.

As for social problems, it is argued that “Washington’s” attempts to deal with these, though sometimes grudgingly granted to be well intentioned, are often misguided because of a “one-size-fits-all” procedure, and unfamiliarity with local conditions, which vary from region to region and state to state; whereas, state governments are more familiar with local problems and more responsive to local needs. In short, they know better how to spend the “people’s money.”

In particular instances this view is valid. But as a general rule, it does not square with reality. Whatever shortcomings may be ascribed to federal officials, these are present in greater measure in those who handle the affairs of the separate states. Though as individuals they may not possess less intelligence or lower moral standards than those who walk the halls of power in Washington, they are in the nature of things more limited in their outlook and more easily swayed by powerful “special interests.” Their very closeness to those who elect them—and finance their election campaigns—makes it harder for them to view an issue objectively and act dispassionately for the public good.

On the other hand, Washington’s relative remoteness from the heat and turmoil of local politics, together with pressure from colleagues who represent different states and different interests, opens to a member of Congress a clearer view of a wider reality. To apply a trite metaphor, state legislators see only the trees, while members of Congress are in a position to view the forest.

This, however, is only one aspect of the main issue, namely, whether “government” is the enemy or the friend of “the people.” And only the unthinking can favor the first alternative. The persons who rail against “the government in Washington” have simply taken for granted the benefits which that government supplies. Whizzing along an interstate highway, we forget that some agency had to build it and pay for it. Buying food in a supermarket, we do not worry—except for an occasional flurry about a particular item— about its being contaminated, or consider who is responsible for its purity. Likewise, when taking drugs to preserve our physical well-being, we do not question the basis of our confidence that there will be no harmful side effects. Or, when we make a bank deposit or buy stocks, we assume that the banker or broker can be trusted, forgetting the lesson of experience that some persons and corporations need an incentive to be honest, namely, government oversight.

Or, passing from the realm of commerce to that in which we seek other than material goods, we forget while enjoying the scenic splendors of our national parks that but for the foresight of the federal government, these natural wonders would have been exploited purely for private profit; that Old Faithful would be surrounded by fast food outlets and motels, with a gambling casino close by for those on whom the beauties of nature quickly pall.

And of course millions of retired persons wait with perfect confidence (not unaware of the need for prudence concerning the distant future) for the unfailing arrival of the Social Security payment that for many is their only defense against destitution.

On the other hand, taking a negative point of view, we should not ignore the thousands of workers who die each year, and the tens of thousands who suffer, from work-related accidents and illnesses that could be avoided if Congress were willing to pass stricter regulations (that obscene r-word), or the executive branch were to enforce more vigorously those that exist.

In short, we should reject the myth that government regulations are an arbitrary punishment imposed by an alien entity on a defenseless public, and recognize that their true purpose is to protect ordinary citizens from exploitation by a powerful minority who insist, and perhaps believe, that “the market” must operate without restraint, and that greed is good. Against this myth we must affirm that in a democracy, by definition, government is the people’s friend.

It is true that the federal bureaucracy (another term of ill repute, though it is only a name for the mechanism of management involved in any operation, public or private) is sometimes unduly cumbersome; that small businesses, in particular, can sometimes justifiably complain of needless “paperwork”; and that government agencies, free from competitive pressure, are sometimes wasteful in spending public money, as well as unresponsive to the wishes and needs of ordinary citizens. But such faults and failings of the federal government are immeasurably outweighed by the benefits that it confers.

The foregoing factors, however—belief in states’ rights, faith in a free market economy, government inefficiency—only partially explain the public’s antipathy, not only to the federal government but to government in general. What most strongly sparks resentment among all ranks of the American people, overshadows their other grievances, real or fancied, and in their imagination presents government—all government—in the guise of an ogre, is taxes. Nothing is certain, opines the cynic, but death and taxes, and in the popular view they are equally unpleasant. Candidates for public office quail at the thought of being charged with the intent to “tax and spend,” and the first requirement in the quest, offered early and often, is a promise to cut taxes. The assumption is that among all voters, of whatever political persuasion, there exists an ingrained conviction that taxes are always and essentially an evil—a sort of black hole into which people’s money is forever being poured but which nothing ever comes out of. They are a needless burden that citizens should not be asked to bear. In the phrase “tax burden,” indeed, the two words are invariably treated as a unit, uttered as automatically and matter-of-factly as the “morning mail,” but always carrying a subliminal suggestion of undeserved injury.

This pervasive sentiment, however, exists in defiance of reason and reality. Without taxes, organized society could not exist. Paying taxes is no more a “burden” than paying for gasoline or groceries. Only, instead of buying things, we buy services—roads and schools and law enforcement and fire protection and vital records and—on the federal level—military security, and all the other benefits that we enjoy as members of a civilized society. It is, in fact, only the ineducable who, if they stop to think, will refuse assent to at least the second part of the famous avowal of former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

There are only three questions concerning taxes that make sense. First, how many and what services—how much civilization—do we wish to buy? Second, is the system of allocating taxes fair? Third, is the money efficiently spent? To say that taxes are “too high,” or that we “cannot afford” a certain level, is meaningless. The issue is simply one of priorities. We can always afford something if we want it badly enough. And when we say that we cannot afford a particular public service, what we are really saying is that we prefer to spend the money to satisfy our private wants.

Politicians flatter prospective voters by telling them, “You can spend your money better than the government can.” This is a comfortable thought for middle-class Americans. But is it true? Is it better that a household should have a TV in every room than that the owner should be taxed so that those less fortunate can have housing that is habitable? Can parents justify buying their children costly electronic games to provide them with mindless pleasure, while other children in ghetto schools are denied decent textbooks because cities “cannot afford” them? Is money spent at a gambling casino a better investment than if it were spent to provide adequate health care for those to whom such care is not a choice, those who are not poor enough to be eligible for Medicaid but for whom private health insurance is hopelessly beyond their reach? Or is money spent simply to make more money better spent than if it were spent by government to provide, let us say, a clean environment?

These are questions that most Americans do not ask. Consequently, they are able to think of “government” as an entity apart from themselves, as the antagonist in an us-against-them relationship. But in a real democracy such a state of things cannot exist. In the immortal words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We get the government that we deserve. We elect the people who make the laws, and if we do not like the laws they make, or if they do not make the laws we think they should, we can always “throw the rascals out.” If we really cared, for instance, about congressional campaign finance reform, we would demand that members of Congress take action or be replaced by those who will. For better or worse, “the government” and “the people” are one and the same.

Is this a cause for hope or for despair? The thesis of this essay, as stated at the beginning, is that the widespread distrust of government in general and the federal government in particular stands in the way of a stable and orderly and—allowing for human weakness—just society. But if the public itself is responsible for government in all its aspects, including those against which its members so vociferously rebel, can there be any hope of improvement? Are we not lost in a maze from which there is no exit?

The answer is twofold. First, if we really believe in democracy, defined (can we agree?) as acceptance of a set of mutual obligations between the individual and the community, must we not also believe that the majority of Americans are persons of good will? That this is a matter of faith, affirmed in defiance of the daily news as recorded in the media, is difficult to deny. But what is the alternative? And does it not follow that this majority, when it engages in behavior that reason must decry as socially destructive, does so out of ignorance and confusion rather than with evil intent?

The second saving article of faith is that this majority, though liable to temporary error, can in the long run learn and change. Not the least of the reasons for the lasting life of the U.S. Constitution, unique in history, is the provision for amendments to meet the needs arising out of changes inevitably unforeseen, while not succumbing too easily to demands for unessential changes, however popular for the moment.

Granted this hopeful outlook toward the future, can we tentatively envision the wished-for shape of things to come: a conscious recognition and acceptance of the interdependence of the individual and the community, affirming as its goal the realization of the individual’s complete potential, while acknowledging that such realization can only be achieved within a community; accepting as absolute one of the great insights of Christianity, namely, that “no man liveth unto himself alone”?

It should, but must not, go without saying that acceptance of such a union must be free. History is strewn with the wreckage of systems, admirable in themselves, whose advocates failed to see the folly of trying to implement them by force. It may seem, in contrast, that in this instance the vision is so alluring as to be self-fulfilling. But we are human beings; and, while rejecting the perverse notion that we are the automatic heirs of Adam’s sin, we cannot deny what experience teaches, that we enter the world accompanied by some innate resistance—perhaps born of our evolutionary struggle for existence—to anything that looks like self-surrender, and that we need some external guidance toward the common goal.

Perhaps we can find it in the words of Thomas Jefferson concerning the “inalienable rights”—”life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—with which we are “endowed”: and that “to secure these rights, governments [emphasis added] are instituted among men.”


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