Cross posted at Daily Kos
Ever since the Reagan era, Republicans have had a simple, clear, persuasive message: GOVERNMENT IS THE PROBLEM. For whatever reason, Democrats have not had a comparably clear and simple message defending the essential role that government plays in today’s world.
Now would be a very good time to fix that. Depending which ways the winds shift by November, we could be just a few percentage points away from a Tea Party takeover of the White House and Congress. The consequences of such a coup would be profound and long-lasting, as today’s Republicans have not hidden their intent to slash everything from Medicare to the EPA. They are on the verge of doing so because we have not sufficiently made the case for the value that government adds to our everyday lives.
I would summarize that case as: GOVERNMENT PROVIDES THE ESSENTIAL FOUNDATIONS FOR MODERN LIFE. Civilized day-to-day life as we know it would simply not be possible without strong and effective government. Perhaps the most effective way to prove this case is to ask people to walk step by step through their day and recognize all the ways that government programs and policies allow them to take the high quality of their lives for granted. (For a useful example of such an exercise, see Government is Good: A Day in Your Life, by a Poli Sci professor.)
Our safety, security, health and freedoms are protected by virtue of our status as citizens of a democracy with one of the most effective governments in the world. Our economic system, transportation network, public health and civil liberties all rest on governmental foundations. We either choose to pay the dues for these systems or allow them to fall apart.
Next time you hear the term “free market”, challenge it. Since when has capitalism ever worked “freely” without government backing it up? Try running a business with no legal system to protect the sanctity of your contracts or copyrights, no police to catch people stealing your goods, no government regulating and maintaining roads, air travel, railroads and waterways for your products, employees and customers to travel through, no education system for your workforce, no standards to set a level playing field among you and your competitors, no regulatory system to protect the reputation of your industry by catching the shysters who will otherwise operate in shady ways and sell unsafe products. Business leaders who think they can thrive if they just cripple the government are seriously deluding themselves. Government in countless ways sets the stage for business (which is why the whole trumped-up “debate” over Obama’s comment about business owners not creating all they have with their own hands is so ridiculous).
Next time you hear a libertarian touting all the ways s/he is proudly independent and considers government some sort of parasite on hard working citizens, ask a few questions, like:
– Ever use the bathroom? Did you know where your poop goes once you flush the toilet? To sewage systems and treatment plants paid for with your tax dollars. You can do without that and handle your waste by yourself, right? And you don’t mind drinking or swimming in water with untreated sewage in it, by the way?
– Do you ever drive on roads or walk on sidewalks? Are those free? If businesses built only their own roads for their own benefit, would we have the type of interconnecting, open and mostly functional system we have today?
– Do you or your parents or grandparents rely on Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid? How would they live if we dismantled or starved these systems?
– Do you eat food from restaurants or supermarkets? How do you know it’s safe? Might your tax dollars paying for USDA meat inspectors, FDA food regulations, and local public health inspections be worth the investment?
– Ever check the weather? Do you know that all the services you use depend on the National Weather Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)?
– Do you use computers? Did you know that NASA dramatically spurred development of the computer through the space program and that DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) created the Internet? If you hate government, could you please refrain from using these devices?
We could, of course, go on and on, and it is a worthwhile exercise seeing how far you can go in finding the ways in which government touches our lives. What is extremely difficult to imagine is what modern life would look like without all the investments that have been made through government at all levels. Could you imagine going through your day without roads, public education, police, sewer systems, safe food, air, water and products, computers and the Internet, etc.? Our lives would surely be set back in history, perhaps 100 years.
Libertarians will surely argue that businesses and citizens together can and would have filled all these gaps without “big government”, but it is an unpersuasive case. To be sure, there are positive examples of businesses coming together to form independent organizations, such as standard setting organizations, without having to rely on government for these services. But even in these instances, government (i.e., the National Institute of Standards) plays a critical role as the ultimate referee of which standards to use, based on the public good rather than any industry’s particular vested interest.
Of course it is true that not all government is good — not by a long shot! Indeed, it is essential to regularly review what we’re getting from government and where we can pare laws and programs that either are not needed or have negative consequences. For example, it is fair to ask, in the age of the Internet, whether we need as many post offices as we have. Unfortunately, the current debate — focused on indiscriminately slashing domestic programs (while of course increasing defense and cutting taxes) — is an impediment rather than a path to such a mature and thoughtful discussion.
Who we elect and what policies they put into place matters a great deal, with ripples through every current of everyday life. Our government desperately needs leaders who seriously understand the value of the institutions they are charged with directing. But to get to that point, we need to educate the public about why government matters.
If Democrats don’t figure out soon how to make that case clearly and forcefully, we may begin to lose the foundations of civilized life that we’ve paid so much and fought so hard to build. And we will all suffer from the loss — including the goombas who are so blinded by their misdirected hatred of government that they can’t see all that it provides them in exchange for their taxes — the price of admission to civilized society.