In the short span of a generation or two, there was a remarkable change in how we construe the role of government in our lives. The shift from FDR’s remark that ‘government is ourselves’ to Ronald Reagan’s notorious sound bite, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help”, revealed just how far we traveled.
The political right wing fashions itself as the guardian of individual rights, as if citizens were like naïve and innocent children in need of protection from an army of faceless bureaucrats determined to control the lives of the American people against their will. Government as bogeyman, expressed by Reagan’s quip, represents the animating principle of right wing fear mongering. But if we demystified what government actually does, could we diminish the political right’s ability to frighten voters?
Here is a list to get us started: Government is the cop who keeps our streets safe and the soldier who fights wars against those who threaten us. Government is those who protect us from fire and natural disasters and who educates many of our children. Government keeps our drinking water and the air we breathe safe from harmful levels of pollution. It ensures the medicines we take have been properly tested and that working conditions in factories and fields across the country are not hazardous. It provides our parents and grandparents and great grandparents with medical coverage and financial support. And it subsidizes important scientific research the private sector does and/or would not fund on its own. Government provides subsidies to all types of farmers. It provides security at our airports and harbors. It purchases the military hardware we need to defend our homeland and interests abroad. And it protects our natural resources from development so future generations may know and experience the majestic wonder of nature.
Is there anything nefarious and threatening here? Of course, this list is not exhaustive. And government hardly does any of these things as efficiently as possible. Moreover, as Edward Snowden and others have shown, our government has the capacity and will to spy on all forms of personal and governmental communication. But putting this important issue aside, does anything on this brief list interfere with our ability to live and work as free citizens in a vibrant democracy? Does any of this inhibit creative and entrepreneurial activity? Of course our tax code should be simplified and become more equitable. Of course some governmental regulation may stifle economic innovation. Of course there is too much red tape. But technological hubs like Silicon Valley are the envy of the world. And is there a private company anywhere that does not have wasteful bureaucratic procedures that inhibit dynamic activity? Suffocating red tape and organizational inefficiency are features of all modern organizations, public and private. Just ask anyone who deals with an insurance company or a cable provider.
The political right bemoans the existence of governmental waste, but has little or nothing to say about subsidies to wealthy farmers or agribusinesses, or about legendary cost overruns engineered by private companies working with the Department of Defense. And if we are talking about “welfare queens”, why have we not heard anything from the political right about one of the largest recent recipients of governmental aid, Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, and his family, who reputedly squirreled away hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, since the time he assumed office? Why isn’t the political right, or anyone for that matter, talking about prosecuting the Karzai family for defrauding the US taxpayer? And exactly how much money was unaccounted for during the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? How much American money was wasted and/or siphoned by private contractors hired by a Republican administration to work in these countries?
While we should address waste and inefficiency, our current political discourse dismisses how government enhances individual freedom and quality of life. Take away any of the functions cited above and our lives as citizens would be worse off, even intolerable. In addition, political oversight protects us from private sector excess. Remember that the near meltdown of 2008-9 was not the result of government spending or the behavior of devious bureaucrats. Massive speculation by the private sector, whose focus was to maximize profit above everything else, precipitated the recent crisis. Without proper governmental oversight, the private financial sector nearly triggered a second economic collapse. And without immediate governmental response, our economy would have fallen off the cliff. The lesson here is that we need more not less political intervention in the financial marketplace.
The recent economic crisis shows that unregulated private markets, rather than governmental action, present the greatest danger to the lives of a majority of Americans and pose the greatest threat to our individual and collective pursuit of happiness. Accordingly, conservative ideology turns things inside out by asserting that government is the enemy of a free and liberal civil society. In truth, their claim functions as a powerful smokescreen. It skillfully presents an argument that benefits the 1% as if it benefitted the other 99%. As long as too many of us remain enthralled by the political right’s fear mongering, asserting that government is the problem rather than an important part of any solution, politicians who promote and defend the interests of a few against the interests of the many will remain in power.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D. Editor of Delano