Countering anti-government propaganda: the case of the Freedom Foundation
If you listen to right-wing AM talk radio, or visit conservative websites, you’ll be subject to relentless propaganda about how government is inefficient and doesn’t produce anything of value.
Conservatives just love to hate government. And they love to talk about “freedom” and “liberty.”
Of course, the anti-government propaganda is nonsense. Thanks to government we have the Internet, civil right protections, potable water, seat belts, parks, libraries, roads, police protection, contracts, labor laws, childhood immunization, public transit, traffic laws, Social Security, Medicare, and the middle class.
Imagine trying to run a business without government protections, laws, and services.
Imagine how crowded our roads would be without public transportation. Imagine our air without pollution controls. Imagine driving without traffic laws.
How would businesses ship their goods without government transportation facilities and laws?
Government-run health care systems in Europe and elsewhere produce higher quality health care at a fraction of the cost of America’s inefficient market-based system.
Conservatives love to hate public schools, but the nations that out-compete us in primary and secondary education have strong public school systems. See Finnish Lessons on why Finland’s public education system is #1 in the world. The American schools that perform poorly are the ones in poorer communities.
It makes sense that conservative politicians and pundits would say government is bad and that freedom is great. They want to convince the public to keep taxes low and to deregulate industry, since low taxes and deregulation benefit the corporations and rich people who fund the politicians, think tanks, and pundits producing the anti-government propaganda.
Sure the corporations want freedom. They want to be free to offshore jobs and profits, evade taxes, pollute the water and air, produce dangerous products, fix prices, monopolize markets, and corrupt Congress. What kind of freedom is that?
The anti-government ideology of the right is the biggest scam foisted on the American people.
The founding fathers of our country tried small government, the Articles of Confederation, and found it wanting. They saw the need for a strong central government that would “provide for the general welfare.”
Government runs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the EPA, and the FDA, to protect our health and safety. The FAA regulates air travel. The NOAA forecasts weather. FEMA is tasked with coming to the rescue in case of natural disasters.
Government regulates finance through the SEC, the FDIC, and the now expired Glass-Stegall Act; reckless deregulation was a major cause of the subprime loan disaster and ongoing financial chaos.
Government maintains national parks and supports conservation and smart transportation. It funds fundamental and applied research that benefits industry and humanity. It teaches our children and takes care of elderly, sick, and indigent citizens’ medical needs.
Thanks to government we have fuel efficiency standards. Think how much better off we’d all be if 20 years ago Congress had instituted more stringent standards. We’d have saved many billions of additional dollars in oil costs and would have reduced the trade deficit and greenhouse gas emissions.
Thanks to government we are not in a deep depression. In 2008 the crybaby corporations ran to Uncle Sam for a bailout — after crashing the economy. But conservatives pretend they don’t need government. How well could corporations do business without government laws, protections, regulations, and bailouts?
Thanks to government we still have GM producing cars.
In The Horrifying Hidden Story Behind Drug Company Profits and The Truth about the Drug Companies, a former Editor in Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine writes of the drug industry, “Instead of being an engine of innovation, it is a vast marketing machine. Instead of being a free market success story, it lives off government-funded research and monopoly rights.”
In fact, Without government, we’d still be hunter-gatherers. The rise of agriculture developed hand-in-hand with the rise of governments, as discussed in Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.
Freedom Foundation’s propaganda
Here’s a concrete example of anti-government propaganda. Washington State’s Freedom Foundation is a right wing think tank whose mission is “to advance individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government.” The Freedom Foundation blog contains an article by Jeff Rhodes:
I’ve often wondered why the state can’t be held to the same legal standard as a private-sector company when it comes to blatant false advertisement. To be specific, I was driving along State Route 3 near Shelton a few days ago when I was delayed by a road work project. My frustration, of course, immediately intensified when I noticed the obligatory signage informing me the construction had “created” several dozen jobs. Which is a bare-faced lie. Contrary to popular misconception – promoted shamelessly by those in the business of spending someone else’s hard-earned money – government is incapable of creating anything. Yes, there are people working on a road construction project who might be unemployed without it, but they’re being paid with money confiscated from the private sector that would otherwise be used to invest in businesses that also hire employees. The difference is, private companies base their spending decisions on actual market forces and, consequently, tend to make investments that result in higher profits and have the potential to create jobs and grow the size of the state’s economic pie. Government, on the other hand, at best simply takes a private-sector job (or two, given the lavish wages ensured by laws like the Davis-Bacon Act) and moves it to the public sector at the whim of a bureaucrat or politician with no particular talent for picking winners and losers. None of which is to suggest every public-sector job is unnecessary. Certainly we need our military to safeguard our freedoms, our police and fire fighters to protect our lives and property and, yes, road construction crews to build and maintain our infrastructure. But the argument for these positions isn’t that government has the power to create jobs out of thin air, because it can’t. It’s that some functions – far fewer than our political leaders would have you believe – are essential to fund precisely because they don’t reduce the unemployment rate.
Mr Rhode’s reasoning is faulty. The government created plenty of things (the Internet, for example, and numerous others medicines and technologies from research funding). The government can create a job to the same extent that a corporation can create a job. When people need a product or a service, they can pay money either to a corporation or, via taxes and fees, to the government, which sometimes contracts out the work to a private corporation.
Why exactly isn’t the government creating a job? Rhodes make the following argument: “Yes, there are people working on a road construction project who might be unemployed without it, but they’re being paid with money confiscated from the private sector that would otherwise be used to invest in businesses that also hire employees.” Rhodes uses the loaded word “confiscate,” but one can equally say that corporations confiscate money from the people and thereby prevent the government from creating the job. Rhodes needs to show that government is inherently or consistently inferior for providing goods and services. His argument to that effect is this:
The difference is, private companies base their spending decisions on actual market forces and, consequently, tend to make investments that result in higher profits and have the potential to create jobs and grow the size of the state’s economic pie. Government, on the other hand, at best simply takes a private-sector job (or two, given the lavish wages ensured by laws like the Davis-Bacon Act) and moves it to the public sector at the whim of a bureaucrat or politician with no particular talent for picking winners and losers.
True, some goods and services are best provided by the market system. In particular, goods and services requiring high tech components or complex allocation of resources and supply chains can more efficiently handled by corporations, which can innovate and compete to provide the goods or services more efficiently. But for other goods and services, not requiring such complex decisions, the government does an equal or better job. In fact, government is like the Operating System of your computer: it provides certain services that application programs can’t efficiently provide. See Government is like a computer operating system.
If there is competitive bidding, and if government workers are held accountable, then government is quite capable of making the required resource allocations.
Take the case of the US military. It often contracts out work (on a no-bid basis) to politically connected private companies, who charge much higher prices than equivalent work done by government workers. Soldiers are paid a fraction of the salary of private contractors. (Historically, Republican politicians have been the most protective of the bloated and corrupt Pentagon budgets.)
Public banks, as in North Dakota, are another example where government can provide a service at a savings to taxpayers. Why let Wall Street banks siphon off fees and interest? Government is quite capable of providing that service.
Conservatives accuse government of providing little of value. Rather, it’s Wall Street and the financialization of the economy that produces little of value.
Health care funding and payments are another example of a bureaucratic service that the government is quite capable of providing. There is little scope for innovation in insurance and medical funding. It’s mostly a bureaucratic process of following rules. Government run health care in Europe yields better outcomes (in terms of longevity, infant mortality and the number of uninsured people) than America’s market based system, at a fraction of the cost. Moreover, can there ever be a market-based system for medical care? “Cut rate heart surgery til the end of the week!”
Not everything is optimized by market forces and competition. Top-down planning is useful for some needs. This is apparent even within corporations: there is limited or little competition between departments and divisions of most corporations. Production and operations are highly organized in a top-down manner. Countries such as Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Japan have significant central planning and oversight of the market but are out-competing the U.S. on many measures of affluence and well-being.
Especially for public goods (such as clean air and water, police protections, investigative journalism, public health, research, and education) the market system has not been shown to be capable of providing the needed services and protections, because people are inherently selfish and short-sighted. The benefits of public goods accrue to everyone equally, and due to selfishness, short-sightedness, and the problem of “free riders” we can’t expect the market system to allocate resources to such needs. Most people aren’t smart enough and far-sighted enough to make the right choices with their money when it comes to education, health, and science. They need guidance from government.
Besides, corporations regularly receive subsidies, government contracts, and military services, to open markets and obtain resources. The government is always involved in picking winners and losers. There’s no such thing as a totally free market.
So, next time you hear conservative repeat their anti-government propaganda, think of the Internet and the middle class.