We Americans have a long history of ambivalence toward government at all levels. We have recently witnessed the stand-off in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon between authorities and anti-government protesters. Republican presidential candidates cry out for abolition of government agencies – and have been doing so for decades (recall Ronald Reagan’s frequent rallying cry against “big govment”). The news is always covering stories of government ineptitude, excess, fraud, waste and intrusion into our privacy. As we noted in American Workplace 4: Work and Overwork, President Franklin Roosevelt faced opposition from small-government critics to his ideas for Social Security and other programs that not only helped millions but have become the very fabric of our society.
It’s important to step back and look at what government is and should be in our political and social context as a nation. As Roosevelt also reminded us, “. . . government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”
Embedded in the very heart of our national creed are two additional phrases that encapsulate the positive and necessary role of government:
- “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” – from the Declaration of Independence
- “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” – from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
Obviously our various governments should be run as efficiently and leanly as possibly – they are using our hard-earned money to pay their salaries and bills. Obviously fraud should be stomped out when discovered – and practices put in place to prevent it in the first place. Obviously government should not unduly intrude in citizens’ private lives (although, ironically, small-government conservatives do not seem to mind intruding in the areas of abortion or same-sex relationships…), and one of the main roles of government in our society is to ensure our safety.
When governments do not serve its citizens, they should be held accountable. This, of course, means that we citizens need to be the watchdogs – we, the taxpayers and voters, need to be constantly vigilant and hold our governments, elected officials as well as those on government payrolls, to the highest standards.
In the charged atmosphere of the current presidential election cycle, where conservative candidates advocate limited government and two candidates on the Democrat side urge more government activism, we need to remind ourselves not only about the mistakes governments make but also that it is often only governments that can truly promote the common good. A look at a few examples illustrate how certain government programs are essential if we want everyone to benefit, not just the richest and most powerful:
- An article in The Commons, Vermont Independent Media, of August 12, 2015, author Tom Buchanan argued that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower “understood that economic growth requires robust and well-funded infrastructure, and he championed multiple federal programs that would lead to national prosperity and security.” NASA and the Interstate Highway system were two of these. Buchanan further makes the very important point that top marginal tax rates in the US were 91 percent in Eisenhower’s time; now the wealthiest Americans pay a maximum marginal rate of only 39 percent – which means that we cannot afford to repair our aging highways or authorize NASA and other agencies to think and plan boldly on behalf of Americans and, indeed, humanity.
- Another article in the same edition of The Commons, by reporter Olga Peters, covered the award of federal brownfield funds to several Vermont communities. Grants from the Environmental Protection Agency “link objectives of protecting the environment and human health with economic development.” Several Vermont communities received assessment or cleanup grants, totaling $2 million, which will support projects such as redeveloping a former paper mill for new industrial space and turning a former creamery into a mixed-use space for housing, commercial areas and a senior center. These federal grants, in conjunction with other funds, also promise to provide over 14,000 jobs in a rural state that definitely needs more jobs.
- Time magazine on August 24, 2015, presented an in-depth examination of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, “the agency that’s got your back.” Author Massimo Calabresi pointed out that this agency, which was created only in 2011, “has become one of the most effective and feared regulators in Washington.” The CFPB’s investigations of banks and other institutions have resulted in “hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties and . . . more than $11 billion in relief for 25 million consumers.” The birth of the CFPB was, as might be expected, hotly contested by Republicans in Congress, but a major crackdown in 2012 against several major institutions so impressed the public that naysayers could no longer justify not confirming President Obama’s interim choice as director, Richard Cordray.
These are just three examples of the positive impacts that government agencies and funds have had or are having on millions of real Americans. We can list any number of other initiatives and programs of local, state, federal and other governments that put our tax dollars to excellent work for us. While agencies sometimes end up in the news after a problem is brought to light, it is hard to prove, using facts and evidence, that most government institutions and their employees do not, most of the time, provide essential services to American citizens.
When anti-government politicians and pundits maintain that smaller government is the best or only way to make America great, it is important to press them for the empirical evidence. When in the modern world has reliance on big business and the efforts of individuals truly created a strong middle class and raised the quality of life for those on the bottom? As we have seen in many of our recent posts, the most successful nations with the highest “happiness” quotient are those in Europe and several other developed nations where capitalism is regulated and progressive taxation provides benefits for the vast majority of their populations. Regulated capitalism and progressive taxation are government efforts.
It might behoove those same anti-government politicians to listen to the newest voters. As an MSN article published on August 14, 2015, quoting a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, pointed out, 60 percent of younger Americans, the so-called millennials, believe that government should do more to solve social problems, not less, and that solutions should not be left up to businesses and individuals. Moreover, “socialism” has a positive ring to it for these young adults, not the negative connotations of their predecessors.
There is a role for government at all levels. In our nation, the government is us. It is hard work to be engaged citizens and hold “government” accountable, but downsizing the government solely for ideological reasons is irresponsible, unworkable, and not only contrary to the intentions of the founders of our nation but also detrimental to millions. Efficient, well-managed government programs at all levels are not evil but rather essential to the lives of all Americans.