Without government, we’d still be hunter-gatherers.
True, the government is often corrupted so as to server the few, but the solution isn’t to follow Grover Norquist and the Tea Partiers and drown government in the bathtub. The solution is to fix government so that it serves everyone.
What’s government good for?
Let’s remind ourselves of the various regulatory and positive functions of government.
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. When the economy crashed in 2008 and banks and insurance companies were on the verge of insolvency, the capitalists went running to government to be saved. (Yes, they should have bailed out homeowners more than the banks.)
Thanks to government we still have GM producing cars.
In 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.” See also The Horrifying Hidden Story Behind Drug Company Profits.
Moreover, government can be more efficient than the market system. This is especially true for health care. The U.S. pays far more per capita than other industrialized countries but leaves tens of millions without coverage and lags in many measures of health.
Government provides real jobs and real services, despite regressives’ common claim that only the private sector generates jobs.
Heck, without government we’d be hunter-gatherers: no laws, no sanitation, no commerce, no childhood immunization, no civil rights, no seat belts, and surely no Internet.
Government is like a computer operating system
The best analogy for the role of government in society is the role of a computer operating system.
Without an operating system, your computer would be a useless hunk of metal and plastic. The operating system provides the basic rules, conventions, protections, and services necessary for the functioning of application programs such as editors, spreadsheets, browsers, and games.
Government plays a similar role in the functioning of a modern society. Government furnishes the rules, conventions, protections, and basic services necessary for the smooth functioning and interactions of businesses and individuals.
Sometimes computer viruses, spybots, malware, and other undesirable programs invade your operating system. They suck up resources, steal private information, and destroy data. To guard against such undesirables the operating system has protections, such as firewalls and security levels. Furthermore, you can install anti-virus programs that will scan your computer and protect you from suspicious programs.
In a similar way, government is sometimes co-opted by special interests who twist the rules, corrupt the lawmakers, and get laws written to their own benefit. Corporations, labor groups, teachers, government workers, rich people, poor people: everybody tries to make government serve their own interests.
One protection against government abuse is election finance laws. Publicly funded elections would make it harder for private interests to buy the votes of lawmakers.
Another protection is investigative journalism. Journalists are like anti-virus programs for government: journalists scan the actions of legislators and government workers, looking for wasteful or fraudulent behaviors. It is to society’s benefit to fund independent investigative journalism, as well as to give tax incentives to privately run news organizations. The US spends a small fraction as much on public journalism as most other industrial nations.
Libertarians are right that too much government is usually a bad thing. Fascism is oppressive and Soviet-style Socialism is both oppressive and inefficient. But the only alternative to such Socialism isn’t laissez-faire capitalism. Libertarians like to imagine that individuals can thrive in modern society without the structure and guidance of a strong central government. This is idle fantasy. When the economy crashed a few years ago, corporations came running to the government to bail them out. Without regulation of complex financial markets, monopolies and corrupt practices would flourish, and further market crashes will be inevitable. Without the organizing role of a strong central government, commerce and trade would not function.
But, yes, we do need to beware of socialism in America –especially of socialism for the rich.
In short, society needs a strong central government as a brake on the excesses of capitalism and as a means for assuring the general Welfare.
The wisdom of the founders
Indeed, the founders crafted a Federal system, with a strong central government, because small-government society under the Articles of Confederation wasn’t working well. (See this history.) The founders realized they needed Big Government to have a modern nation. The Constitution asks the Federal government to provide for the general Welfare and to do lots of other things to secure our safety and well-being.
The Preamble to the United States Constitution states
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
What was true in the late 18th century is even more true now, with the significantly more complex issues facing the nation.