Chapter 36: Government is Good
Anonymous Citizen: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”
Representative Robert Inglis (R-SC): “Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government.” (1)
Government and the Common Good
The idea for this chapter comes directly from Douglas J. Amy, Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College, who many years ago put together the Government is Good web project as “an unapologetic defense of a vital institution.” Please visit Amy’s site and explore his information about the war on government, why government is good, and how to revitalize democracy.
Because this textbook takes a critical approach to the topic of U.S. government and politics, you might be under the false impression that it advocates a negative view of the government. Nothing could be farther from the truth. To be sure, the federal government has done some truly awful things in our history and will probably do some despicable things in the future. Government too often caters to the needs of corporations and the wealthy elite, especially when ordinary people do not organize themselves and effectively pressure government to serve the common good. Nevertheless, the federal government is on balance a force for the good and a positive influence in our individual lives, especially when it supports and complements the cooperative work of people in their local communities and neighborhoods.
The Anti-Government Impulse
The United States contains within it a very prominent and well-funded network of people and organizations that is doing all it can to ensure that government is so small and ineffective that the broader population will just give up on it. Indeed, Grover Norquist, long-time conservative activist and president of the corporate-funded Americans for Tax Reform, is famous for once saying that his goal was to reduce government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” (2) Norquist’s statement fairly summarizes the anti-government impulse that is financed by billionaires and corporations. If government is too small and powerless to help people, that’s a good thing as far as they are concerned. If government is so gridlocked that it can’t act, that’s also good. If government policy can be made so arcane and convoluted that it frustrates people—think of our healthcare system that is so byzantine that people in other countries shake their heads in disbelief—that’s good as well. Sometimes, this impulse is housed in portions of the Democratic party and sometimes it resides in the Republican party, which is where it currently lives. The Libertarians are always on board. And in a 2020 New Yorker article, award-winning journalist Jane Mayer documents the most recent organized effort to go after government, which clearly centers around the steady feeding of dark money to Republican candidates. (3)
The anti-government impulse relies on a number of tactics to convince ordinary people that government can’t and shouldn’t help them, such as encouraging political gridlock regarding broad public-interest bills, promoting unrestricted campaign financing, and failing to enforce campaign finance laws, but we won’t talk about these tactics here. Instead, we’ll focus on the following:
Anti-Tax Crusades—There are precious few people who enjoy paying taxes, but we all understand that taxes are the primary way that we pool our resources for the collective good. Without taxes, we don’t have public roads, schools, an open Internet, law enforcement, national defense, Social Security, and myriad other public goods. Anti-government crusaders want to “starve the beast” by denying government the funds it needs to accomplish what the public wants from the government. It plays upon the public’s dislike of paying taxes. “It’s our money!” they shout. “We are overtaxed!” In fact, it’s very well documented that Americans have a lower tax burden than most other advanced countries’ citizens, but our tax system is one of the most complicated and frustrating. (4)
Calls to reduce taxes are almost always a bait and switch proposition. The goal is to get ordinary people to say, “Yes, we want our taxes reduced,” but then provide little tax relief to them while lavishing tax breaks and loopholes on wealthy people and corporations. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was a classic example. Candidate Donald Trump talked about cutting taxes, “especially [for] the middle class.” (5) The Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Popular Democracy, and the Economic Policy Institute documented behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts that ensued during the 2017 tax debates. Lobbyists pushed for and got larger-than-dreamed-possible tax cuts for corporations, lower taxes for rich individuals and families, and sweet deals especially for multinational corporations. The Act afforded token tax relief for middle class families, added $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit in ten years, didn’t significantly add to economic growth, didn’t result in wage growth for workers, and didn’t boost investment. (6) People get frustrated that their situations haven’t improved. Politicians start wooing voters with a middle-class tax cut, and a whole new round of the scam starts again. Corporations and the rich make out like bandits, while the federal government is starved of revenue.
Deficit Scaremongering—Deficit scaremongering works hand in glove with anti-tax crusades. Once the federal government is shorted the tax revenue it should be getting from the wealthy and corporations, it’s time for the anti-government network to frighten people over the growing annual federal deficit and overall debt. Note that in 1950, corporate income taxes provided 26 percent of the federal government’s revenue, but by 2018 it was down to 6 percent of revenue. (7) To be sure, we have reason to be concerned about the government chronically running deficits and building up debt. Interest paid on that debt, for example, is tax money that goes to debt holders rather than serving an actual public need. Still, a clear pattern is that deficit scaremongering is most commonly heard in the corporate-owned media, when progressives are trying to do things like provide health care, shore up Social Security, and improve access to higher education. The message in opposition to social spending is always some version of, “We can’t pay for that. Look at the deficit!” Somehow, when the project is intended to pump up military spending or provide tax cuts to people and corporations who don’t really need them, one hears very little deficit scaremongering in the media.
The other interesting pattern we’ve seen since the 1970s is that Republican administrations have been the most fiscally irresponsible, adding more to the debt than Democratic administrations. Political writer Steve Benen graphs deficit spending by color coding the bars red for Republican administrations and blue for Democratic administrations. (8) As you can see, the 1981-1993 Republican Reagan and Bush administrations added considerably to the deficit, but then the 1993-2001 Democratic Clinton administration turned it around and actually produced budget surpluses, as seen when the bars get above the ‘0’ baseline. The 2001-2009 Republican George W. Bush administration added more deficits, and the 2009-2017 Democratic Obama administration reduced them even while dealing with the Great Recession that started under Bush. The Republican Trump administration reinforced the pattern from 2017 to 2021 by adding significantly to the debt with ever-greater annual deficits. It will be interesting to see if this pattern holds. The primary result is that Democratic administrations, which are generally more likely to push social spending, become handcuffed and unable to get their proposals through.
Anti-Government Cynicism—Another anti-government network strategy is to promote anti-government cynicism. There are two basic messages here. One is that government can’t do anything right. With any enterprise as large and complex as the U.S. federal government, it’s always easy to find instances of outright incompetence. “You want a single-payer national health system? Hell, the government can’t even deliver the mail!” Notwithstanding that the U.S. Postal Service has a tremendously good record, someone always finds counterexamples and plays them up in the media. The second message is that government programs are rife with abuse, particularly those designed to help people. Recall the term “welfare queen” popularized by then-candidate Ronald Reagan who used it as a racialized dog whistle to alert voters that social welfare programs were being abused. There’s no doubt that some welfare recipients have abused the system, but the overwhelming majority do not. (9) In any case, the proper response to welfare-abuse cases would be to tighten the system to prevent additional abuse rather than to scrap or reduce the program, which does nothing but hurt people who are living on the edge. If current anti-government cynicism is strong enough, voters can be convinced that it’s largely a waste of money to entrust government with important social tasks.
The Myth of Rugged Individual Freedom—The final strategy we want to highlight here is propagating the myth of rugged individual freedom. It is especially strong in the United States, perhaps because of the mythologized and false history we tell ourselves of rugged individuals taming a vast wilderness continent, even though for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Native Americans had already established vast communities and trading networks. To believe this myth, we have to conveniently ignore all evidence that the European colonization of the North American continent was a cooperative, often government-led operation in which people acted in groups to achieve a common goal. Some frontier towns even had strict, community-enforced gun control. (10) When the U.S. government provided free land to railroad companies, it allowed Western miners, ranchers, and farmers to get their raw materials to markets and, in turn, allowed them access to finished products.
The anti-government network of billionaire-financed libertarians and their think tanks, media outlets, and lobbying firms would like people to think of themselves as some sort of suburban Clint Eastwood, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps with no help from any government handouts or services. Anybody violating that image must be “dependent upon government, [and] believe that they are victims,” and we’ll “never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” (11) This idea is, in one word, nonsense. As we’ll see in more detail, everyone in the country benefits from past and present government actions. Let’s take me, the author of this text, as an example: White, male, heterosexual, and middle class; I did not receive any government welfare assistance when growing up, nor have I received any as an adult. No food stamps, no assistance for needy families, no Medicaid, etc. I worked hard in school and in the various jobs I’ve held. Am I a maker instead of a taker, to use Republican Senator and presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s language? No. I am, as all of us are, a maker and a taker. While I did not receive welfare designed for poor people, I nevertheless received all sorts of government benefits. As a child, my healthcare came through my father’s military service. My public schools were generally good, paid for by taxpayers. I made full use of my local public library and earned minimum wage there in my first job. I learned to drive on locally and nationally financed roads and highways. I attended a public university where my tuition was subsidized by taxpayers. I breathed clean air and drank clean water, thanks to government regulations. I benefited from local, state, and national law enforcement agencies as well as the governmentally created legal and economic infrastructure that makes the “free market” possible.
Take a step back from the “rugged individual freedom” myth to see the broader agenda at work behind it. In any given society, the institutions historically most responsible for controlling individual behavior are churches, concentrated economic power, and government. For the past 600 years in the West, churches have gradually lost the power they once had, and governments have increased their ability to control individual behavior—sometimes for ill, but, on balance, for good. The anti-government network is really the voice of concentrated economic power, and we can think of its attack on government in two ways. If we take their argument on its own terms, we could conclude that if government were weaker, we all would have more individual freedom. Maybe, but doubtful. The other way to think about it is this: If corporations and the wealthy elite can knock the legs out from under government or otherwise dominate it, we will simply have traded one master that we can control through democratic processes for one that we cannot. If government screws up or fails to serve our interests, we have recourse by putting in new officeholders. When corporations and the wealthy run roughshod over people or kill them in pursuit of profit, they pay a tiny fine and move on the to the next exploitative or murderous adventure. We don’t get to vote on who leads the company or that it should spend a little more on worker or consumer safety and a little less on shareholder dividends.
The Federal Government Promotes the Common Good
Let’s spend a little time talking about the good that government does. There’s really too much to cover adequately here, so let’s concentrate on a few government activities from which we all have benefitted. We’re going to skip civil rights as an important category only because we’re going to talk about that in more detail in another textbook section. Suffice it to say that we all have benefitted because, through organized action by many people, the federal government is now, on balance, a force that ensures we are treated equally regardless of our race, sex, religion, and national origin. For now, though, we’ll concentrate on these three categories of federal government activity that promote the common good:
Establishing Our Economic Infrastructure—Any free market that is more sophisticated than familial or tribal barter is the result of government action. The value of money has to be regulated for a free market to work. Note that this power was given to Congress in Article I of the Constitution and that government was empowered to punish counterfeiting because that practice undermines people’s faith in the money supply. Free markets also need a legal infrastructure—laws, courts, and police powers—so that disputes can be peacefully, businesses can be incorporated, investors can be secure in their investments, contracts can be honored, and people can plan for the future knowing that there is an infrastructure they can count on. Without these things, a “free market” economy cannot even be established, let alone operate well.
The federal government regulates the money supply and interest rates through the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve System. The banking system is regulated—perhaps not as well as it should be—and people benefit from federal deposit insurance on their money. The United States has a well-developed legal system at both the federal and state levels that governs corporate formation, contracts, investments, and so forth. We have fairly robust laws against investor fraud. We have the Consumer Product Safety Commission that can force companies to recall defective products, and we have a court system that allows injured parties to sue for damages. The National Weather Service provides weather data and forecasting used by everyone from ski areas to commercial fishermen, from trucking companies to farmers. The Small Business Administration helps entrepreneurs start new businesses and access funding. The federal government has supplied most basic research funding for life-saving drugs, GPS devices, the Internet, medical devices, and a whole host of other economically invaluable things.
The federal government performs two other really important economic functions that we shouldn’t forget. First, its counter-cyclical spending helps lessen the negative impacts of economic downturns. When the economy declines, federal welfare and unemployment insurance payments stimulate consumer spending that would otherwise decline, thereby helping people directly and the economy generally. Secondly, the federal government has played a pivotal role in developing the physical infrastructure on which our economy depends. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 started one of the largest infrastructure projects in American history: the creation of the interstate highway system, benefitting individual people and commercial businesses alike. Before that, the federal government subsidized building the national railroad network, which still transports tons of freight cross country each year.
Working to Ameliorate Poverty—As Professor Amy put it, “Government programs are often one of the most effective ways that we express caring and compassion toward our fellow human beings.” (12) The 1930s Great Depression taught us that church and local community-based efforts to ameliorate poverty—valuable as they are—can easily be overwhelmed when the economy stalls and are generally not up to the scale needed to fight the ills that accompany the particular version of capitalism practiced in the United States. During the Great Depression, government programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration—the latter of which built the high school I attended—put people to work when the private sector could not.
One of America’s great past tragedies is the extent of poverty among elderly people. Poverty used to be more prevalent among America’s elderly than other population groups, but it has declined considerably since the 1930s due to federal programs like Social Security and Medicare. America still has a problem today, with hundreds of thousands of elderly people living in poverty, but the situation is far better than it was before the federal government intervened.
The federal government works to ameliorate poverty in other ways as well. Millions of American families are aided every year by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp program, which was in place temporarily during World War II and permanently since 1964. The Medicaid program has provided health care to poor people since 1965. The Supplemental Security Income program has been subsidizing disabled adults and children since 1972. Since 1972, the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program has helped treat and feed millions of pregnant women, new mothers, and young children, while the Pell Grant program has allowed millions of young people to go college. Every year since 1975, the Earned Income Tax Credit has helped millions of working poor escape poverty. Poverty is still a scourge in the United States, especially when one considers how comparatively wealthy a country it is, but life in America would be unimaginably worse without federal anti-poverty efforts. It behooves us not to consider alternative and better ways to fight poverty, but for now, we can know that these programs have undoubtedly made people’s lives better than they would have been had they never existed.
Promoting Quality of Life—Federal entities like the Environmental Protection Agency and laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act benefit all of us every day. Since the early 1970s when these laws went into effect, and despite the population growth, our waterways and air are cleaner than they would have been without them. This is a lifesaving, quality-of-life enhancing benefit to real people every day. (13) In addition, the Food and Drug Administration ensures that the food we eat is safe and that the pills we take are efficacious and safe. And the 1971 creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has helped the United States experience a dramatic decline in workplace injuries and death. (14)
Think about the public health improvements that have come as a result of the federal government. Through the National Institutes of Health and other agencies, the federal government funds basic research on everything from cancer to heart disease. Federally funded immunization drives have dramatically reduced our chances of contracting polio, measles, diphtheria, and other diseases. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) monitors domestic and international disease outbreaks from the flu to the zika virus to the corona virus, helping us prepare for and mitigate outbreaks. Of course, these institutions only work well when presidential administrations support the CDC with funding and staff pandemic early warning units, and when wearing masks is seen by the public as a public health measure rather than an infringement on personal liberty.
Federal support for education makes a real difference in our lives. Through student loans and the Pell Grant program, the federal government supports access to higher education. Title I funding from the Department of Education goes to school districts serving high numbers of students living in poverty to help provide them with equal opportunities. The federal Head Start program works with local agencies to promote school readiness for low income children.
We could go on. Have any of you enjoyed a National Park, a National Forest, or BLM lands? Have you flown on a federally funded world class national airline system or used your local mass-transit system? Have you used GPS technology to find a good restaurant or the most efficient way to get around a traffic accident? Have you benefitted from federal safety standards for automobiles and tires? Have you benefitted from federal law enforcement disrupting domestic and international terrorist groups?
The federal government, imperfect as it is—as are all human institutions—is a net positive part of our lives. Those who promote nonstop government criticism want you to forget that government has benefitted ordinary people and that it continues to do so. They want you to doubt that government could improve itself, offer new programs, and serve the general welfare. They want government to fail.
What if . . . ?
What if we replaced the Presidents Day holiday with a Good Government holiday? Government workers could have that day off, and the news would be filled with stories of how our government is a positive force in our lives. Kids would get that day off from school as well, but the weeks surrounding that holiday could be filled with lessons about what government does, the dedication of government employees, and field trips to see government in action. Writing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, William Burns argued that “If America has any chance to recover, let alone rescue a semblance of unity from the rubble of our polarized politics, we have to heed the admirable examples of [government workers] and seize this moment to end the war on government, revive our institutions, and shape a new era of public service.” (15) What if we heeded Burns’ advice and revitalized a public-minded sense of service to America?
- Bob Cesca, “Keep Your Goddamn Government Hands Off My Medicare!” Huffington Post. December 6, 2017.
- Quoted in Bob Dreyfuss, “Grover Norquist: ‘Field Marshall’ of the Bush Plan,” The Nation. April 26, 2001.
- Jane Mayer, Dark Money. The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.
- Beverly Bird, “How Do U. S. Taxes Compare to Other Countries?” The Balance. November 20, 2019. See also the information at the Tax Policy Center.
- Jesse Byrnes, “Trump: ‘Everybody is Getting a Tax Cut,’” The Hill. May 9, 2016.
- Peter Cary and Allan Holmes, “The Secret Saga of Trump’s Tax Cuts,” Center for Public Integrity. April 30, 2019. Maggie Corser, Josh Bivens, and Hunter Blair, Still Terrible at Two. The Trump Tax Act Delivered Big Benefits to the Rich and Corporations But Nearly None for Working Families. The Center for Popular Democracy and the Economic Policy Institute. December 2019.
- Federal figures from the Tax Policy Center.
- Steve Benen, “Despite His Promises, Trump Pushes Deficit Past $1 Trillion Mark,” MSNBC. September 13, 2019.
- Gene Demby, “The Truth Behind the Lies of the Original ‘Welfare Queen,’” NPR All Things Considered. December 20, 2013.
- Matt Jancer, “Gun Control is as Old as the Old West,” Smithsonian Magazine. February 5, 2018. Donald J. Campbell, America’s Gun Wars: A Cultural History of Gun Control in the United States. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2019. Pages 24-26.
- Candidate Mitt Romney. John Christofferson, “Romney’s ‘47%’ Chosen as Year’s Best Quote,” USA Today. December 9, 2012.
- Douglas J. Amy, Government is Good.
- Paul Greenberg, “The Clean Water Act at 40: There’s Still Much Left to Do,” Yale Environment 360. May 21, 2012. Kristie Ross, James F. Chmiel, and Thomas Ferkol, “The Impact of the Clean Air Act,” The Journal of Pediatrics.Volume 161, Issue 5. November 2012. Pages 781-786.
- United States Department of Labor data.
- William J. Burns, “America Needs a Rebirth of Public Service,” The Atlantic.May 4, 2020.