It has become fashionable to view our government as the root of all evil, to denigrate its existence, and look upon it as an enemy. But no government is a naturally occurring thing that must be chained, caged, or neutralized. Governments exist because we the people have willed them to be, and have provided their sustenance, purpose, and direction. People come together and form governments to do those things for them that they as individuals can’t. Several people may come together to form a local fire brigade, but unless it’s funded and supported in fat times and lean, it is useless, and we are all in danger from fire. Similarly, we as individuals may have arms to defend ourselves from a bandit, but unless we can form a full army in time of need, we’d better put together a government to provide that army for us, to protect all of us from the army of brigands out to rape, pillage, and plunder. And any two people can come to an agreement that your three sheep are worth my cow, and trade, but it takes a government to give value to those pieces of paper, those electronic ones and zeroes, we’d rather trade for a steak or a dozen eggs.
Should there be limits on the government? Absolutely. There are many things we as individuals can and should do far better than an outside authority coming in to tell us: we can decide who we live with, where and how much we want to work, how and if we want to pray, and so forth. We don’t need a government to decide every little detail of our lives.
But we do need a government to harness our collective will to achieve things far greater than we can individually. It was a government program that put people on the Moon. It was a government program that built the interstate highway system. And it is governmental intervention that protects individuals from overweening corporate interests through things like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the Glass-Steagall legislation.
Our current, tarnished view of government in general, and the US federal government in specific, probably dates to the era of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
Government works best when it’s doing what individuals can’t, and what must be done. The US government harnessed the manufacturing and intellectual capacities of the nation to take us from a standing start to people on the Moon in ten years. Along the way, those efforts designed remarkably new abilities that today we couldn’t live without, but which no one individual or company would have invented without the government contract that got us there (computer technology, velcro, etc.). And today, we see the proper use of that research and development, when we consider the space program a nearly mature technology, that the government has spun it all off to private companies. The next American astronauts that launch into space from the US will be going on craft designed and built not by the government, but by US industry. Meanwhile, the R&D efforts and spending can be re-focused on other projects that won’t show a profit for years or decades. That is the way government should work.
Unfortunately, we live in an era when we’ve been denigrating the concept of government for so long that we elected a person who promised to destroy as much of the government framework as possible. And through either direct action or simple neglect, he has managed to do so. But now, as we suffer through the greatest medical pandemic in living memory, which has no clear end in sight, and we pray that our medical experts can work miracles, and develop an effective vaccine in short order, we’re starting to realize that maybe, just maybe, we did need to keep funding “unprofitable” governmental activities. We did need to maintain governmental abilities and supplies against the unthinkable, because it does sometimes happen.
And maybe, just maybe, we need to elect a president whose goal isn’t to destroy the government, but to re-enable it to do all those things for us that we need it to do. That’s why I’m voting for whoever is most likely to defeat Donald Trump’s bid for re-election.
(This essay was prompted by the article “Crisis exposes how America has hollowed out its government” by Dan Balz, published by the Washington Post on May 16, 2020, and retrieved from MSN.com at this link:
Several pertinent quotes from that article:
“A fundamental role of government is the safety and security of its people,” said Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of homeland security. “To me that means you have to maintain a certain base level so that, when an event like a pandemic manifests itself, you can quickly activate what you have and you have already in place a system and plan for what the federal government is going to do and what the states are going to do.”
“One thing to keep in mind is that government takes on hard problems,” said David E. Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. “They’re often problems that can’t be solved by the market and there aren’t private entities to solve them.”
He added: “We’re seeing a government that is suffering now from a long period of neglect that began well before this administration. And that neglect has accelerated during this administration.”
“I think this event is revealing of what governance wonks have been warning about for a long time, namely that we haven’t been very focused on the basic governing systems we need to execute policy successfully,” said William Galston of the Brookings Institution. “The competency of government to serve as an instrument of policy delivery has been weakened substantially. One of our long-term tasks is to rebuild that capacity.”
“Fundamentally we have a legacy government that hasn’t kept up with the world around it,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. “We create government and capacity around the problems of the day and there’s not much refreshed. It does not lie with a single administration. It is endemic through modern times and not just the executive [branch] but in Congress.”
Much of the work done by government is now carried out by nongovernmental employees — private contractors, consulting firms, nonprofits and others not technically on the federal payroll. Tina Nabatchi, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, estimates that as much as 70 percent of the work of government is done by these outside entities. “We’ve taken out the middle levels of bureaucracies,” she said.
One reason is the desire of some leaders to run government like a business, though the two are not alike. Another is to mask the true scope of government. John DiIulio, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that earlier in its existence, the Department of Homeland Security had more full-time-equivalent contractors than full-time-equivalent employees. “We want a lot from government,” he said. “We don’t want a lot of government.”
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