On the proper size of government

Claude Fischer in a Boston Review article writes about how we take the government for granted. Well yes, like the air we breathe the government is all around us, and it does things that we perhaps don’t recognize or appreciate, don’t as a rule even notice, so the expression “take for granted” may not be out-of-place.

What about our own government do we take for granted? Perhaps at the top of a list would be protection and safety in regard to our person and property. And this kind of security wasn’t always there, as the examples of the wild West and the Jim Crow South make clear. Also right up there on our list would be the rule of law permitting the nearly constant peaceful and profitable dealings and exchanges among us. And no less essential and vital to our daily lives are the constitutional protections of our freedoms. Then in our retirement years, there are Social security checks and Medicare benefits, these perhaps not so much taken for granted. And finally there is the government’s vital role in extending these benefits to most if not all Americans.

If government were to limit itself to the single activity of defending such things as these, our freedoms, our person, and our property et al, there might now be no Left and Right, no Progressive or Conservative oppositions. I think probably everyone, exceptions made for a few anarchists and extreme libertarians, would accept the need, the necessity for a minimum but essential government role.

But why has it not happened that government has remained small? The simplest answer is that people are different, people’s needs are different. People are not the same. This needs to be repeated, said over and over again. And not being the same people they should not be treated the same, as say in a hospital clinic or a public school. From birth or even before people are unequal, and the inequalities between people result in differing and different needs, and these needs cry out at least to those of us who care, probably still most of us, that something be done. And too often it happens that the needs being so great imply that only government is big enough to address them and do something about them.

At this point in the argument surfaces the very greatest difficulty that we face both as a nation, and as individuals, just where to draw the line in respect to an obvious need, say poverty or healthcare, between the respective responsibilities of the government and the individual.

If governments have been expanding in respect to sheer size and the number of roles and responsibilities they have assumed, and all the numbers tell us they have, and if the roles and responsibilities of individuals have been decreasing, and the numbers bear that out,  isn’t it because it’s the nature of government to look for more and more ways to satisfy what appear to be the otherwise neglected needs of the people. As a result there is simply no end to the number of actual and possible government programs created in response.

Claude Fischer puts it this way, and he is only talking about the Federal government, not about local governments that by and large have created their own programs in imitation of the Feds.

“The major responsibilities of the federal government—defense; law enforcement and civil courts; Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and other welfare support; highway, port, and airport building and management; scientific and health research; higher education; boosting home ownership; sanitation and water supply; safety regulation; communications infrastructure (including the Internet) and regulation; agricultural support of various kinds; subsidized insurance of various kinds (crop, bank deposit, flood, housing, etc.); national parks and recreation; managing cycles of the economy; [People] leave home each day taking all that for granted.”

Fischer does say that all these federal programs suffer from episodic failures and some waste, fraud, and abuse, but, he also says, “they work well enough”… Do they? That is the real question dividing Progressives from Conservatives, creating the divide between the Left and the Right.

And Fischer goes even further, trying to convince by a number of citations that bigness in governments is good. Is it? Here’s a bit of what he says:

“…the international evidence on the role of government suggests that improving the U.S. government’s normal performance would generally involve expanding its role, not shrinking it…. residents of nations with larger governments do better than those of nations with smaller governments….people living in nations with larger governments express more contentment… Americans would—eventually—respond well to larger government,…”

Well, is he right? We’re really not able to answer the question, are we? Whether our government is too large or not large enough. In any case there are still too many people with too many needs, who have not been substantially helped, not been satisfied by either more and more government programs or by individual, their own, or private efforts. So the jury is still out, as to which way we should go.

I’d like to respond to Fischer and admit it’s true that some government programs we take for granted do work well for us, in my own case Social Security, Medicare and the home mortgage deduction subsidy to name just three, and for all of us there is clean air, water, and security (anyone who has lived in the underdeveloped world, even next door in Mexico or elsewhere in central America, ought to know that).

But in my opinion there are two areas, huge areas, education and healthcare, where, I think, government has overstepped its role and made things worse than they might have been otherwise if private enterprise had been allowed a greater role in regard to both.

Why is that? Because people, as individual consumers of both medical services and education probably know better than government, certainly what they want and what they need, but also how much they should pay in regard to both. For now in regard to both government shows little spending restraint with the result that these two areas alone are eating a greater and greater portion of government tax revenues, thus preventing the government from helping where it should be helping.

And also while we have the most expensive systems of both health care and public education of any nation in the world we are at the bottom of the list of the developed nations in respect to the quality and effectiveness of both.

Finally, the question of the proper size of government might be answered on the one side or the other by the Americans when they go to vote for either Mitt Romney or Elizabeth Warren in the 2016 presidential election.

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