I’ve been spending considerable time thinking about the value we place on our American government, as well as the need to be an informed citizen of this great nation. Last month, I walked through the cities of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and I could not help but be reminded how America saved the world from Hitler’s Holocaust. I was proud of the Greatest Generation, who waded onto the beaches of Normandy to save others from the tyranny of the Nazi onslaught.
With all the ‘Deep State’ conspiracy talk, the debates about ‘how much is too much’ government involvement, and complaints about taxation, I became motivated to answer a simple question that was asked by Rush Limbaugh: “With the exception of the military, I defy you to name one government program that has worked and alleviated the problem it was created to solve.” I discovered the answer by doing something Americans often don’t have time for — reading.
Many folks think they never needed government to do anything for them; after all, they pulled themselves up by their efforts with little help from Uncle Sam. Many view government as the enemy or as a bunch of bungling fools or as merely a greedy taxation machine…maybe all three.
So let me remind everyone of some of “Government’s Greatest Hits” — (and for brevity, these are just the Gold Standards). These results come from the research of Professor Douglas Amy, Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College. The good professor begins with this:
“What follows is a short list of some of the federal government’s greatest accomplishments. These are policy programs that have not only worked, but have been very successful and have greatly improved the quality of life of most Americans.
- Regulation of the Business Cycle. Until the financial crisis that began in 2008, most of us had forgotten how dependent we are on the federal government to prevent economic depressions. Since the 1930s, the government has used a variety of monetary and fiscal policies to limit the natural boom and bust cycles of the economy. Before government took on this responsibility, severe depressions were a routine and recurring problem in this country — occurring in 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907 and 1929. Thanks to government intervention, we have been able to avoid the enormous amount of human suffering caused by these massive economic meltdowns… By any measure, eliminating these depressions and this misery has been one of the greatest — and often unheralded — achievements of our federal government.
- Public Health Programs. A variety of programs run by the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local Public Health departments have greatly improved the health of most Americans. For example, the scourges of polio, cholera, and smallpox have been effectively eradicated from this country — a huge achievement. And vaccination programs have reduced by 95% our risks of contracting potentially debilitating diseases like hepatitis B, measles, mumps, tetanus, rubella, and diphtheria. Federal funds spent on buying and distributing these vaccines have saved countless lives and the billions of dollars it would cost to treat these illnesses.
- The Interstate Highway System. Started by the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, this system now forms the backbone of long-distance travel and commerce in the United States…. Even some conservatives have been forced to admit the success of this building program, with George Will calling it “the most successful public works program in the history of the world.” It’s hard to imagine the U.S. without this interstate highway system, and this system would not exist at all if it weren’t for the government.
- Federal Deposit Insurance. Another government program we’ve taken totally for granted until recently is federal protection of our bank deposits…. The main reason we had no disastrous runs on banks (and money market funds) during the financial panic of 2008 was that government was there to guarantee those deposits.
- Social Security and Medicare. Without these two government programs, growing old would be hell for many Americans…. Social Security has cut the rate of poverty for the elderly by over half — from 29% in 1966 to 10% today. Not surprisingly, financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn has described Social Security as ‘arguably the U.S. government’s greatest success.’Medicare has also been incredibly successful. It has doubled the number of the elderly covered by health insurance, so that 99% now enjoy that benefit. Without this form of “socialized” medicine, 15 million of our neediest citizens would be going without many vital medical services and many would have to choose between food and medicine. Older Americans are now living 20% longer, thanks in part to this effective program. These two programs have done more than anything else to relieve the pain and suffering of our elderly population.
Okay. Those are just five of the largest programs that affect Americans’ pocketbooks. But is it true that overall the government has been successful? According to the Harvard study by Derek Bok, which compared the situation for Americans in the 1960’s to the 1990’s, after studying 75 indicators of government involvement, the study concluded:
During the past thirty-five years, our society has made substantial progress in most of the fields surveyed. In almost all of these advances, government actions have played a prominent role, whether it be in cleaning up the environment, expanding personal freedom, extending health care to the poor and elderly, reducing poverty, or increasing opportunities for women and minorities. Federal policies have clearly had a hand in America’s greatest domestic achievements…
As for those who believe government is the problem, not the solution, a rebuttal from Professor Douglas Amy, “But the basic point here is this: there is simply no credible support for the government bashers’ contention that most government activities are ineffective and that policies usually make things worse rather than better. Exactly the opposite is the case.”
Grover Norquist declared years ago: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”He and his ilk have been spending millions upon millions of dollars since the 1990’s to convince Americans to not trust their government, to despise certain politicians, to pledge to never raise taxes for any reason, to never regulate anything because they believe in ‘Let the buyer beware!’ (try doing that on an airplane without the FAA’s inspections). And sadly, the results are that conspiracy theories abound, and people are either suspicious of government or just apathetic in their role as being an active, informed citizen (they don’t even vote!). This essay is my humble attempt to encourage all to read and pay attention to how much our government does for the average citizen. No, government is not perfect, but this noble experiment has been and remains the beacon of freedom and “the land of hope and dreams.”
It is often those who are not yet affected by circumstances beyond their control, who roar the loudest that they want government out of their lives. However, when those people face debilitating disease, trauma, natural disaster, etc., they clamor for the forces of government to help them be it fire, flood, food quality, or water purity (to name but a few). I wonder how Norquist and Limbaugh will feel about government actions and global warming as the waters rise up and up and up.
“Government is Good: An Unapologetic Defense of a Vital Institution”A web project of Douglas J. Amy, Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College
Derek Bok, The State of the Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).