What do we mean by “government?”

Dan Liechty | February 14, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

In today’s local newspaper, there is a letter written by a fellow citizen of my town. The letter, titled “Government is nothing but a spending machine,” expressed the writer’s view that government is a farce, a flim flam. It reads, in part, “The harsh reality is that government produces neither goods nor services. How can it? Most of its members have never run a business, never met a payroll, never assumed any risk. Rather, government is an unbridled spending machine … the very antithesis of profit. Government spends, it does not produce.”

I genuinely seek to understand the view of such fellow citizens, which we are hearing with increasing frequency and volume. I attended a “listening session” (but which was highly engineered toward selling the Ryan Budget Plan) held by my elected congressman, Adam Kinzinger, and he made much the same claims about government – that government cannot by its very nature create “real jobs,” something only private sector employers can do (a strange sentiment coming from a man who had spent at least a third of his life in active pursuit of a government job.) Echoes of the same sentiment are being heard in the statements of various would-be political leaders such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. I am sure that in no matter what area of the nation you live, you could easily pick up your own local newspaper, turn on your radio, or do a little eavesdropping on conversations in your local coffee shop, and quickly encounter sentiments like this.

Much as I have tried to comprehend this view, I remain totally perplexed. Have these people not benefited from a public education, either personally or for family members, or employees? Do they not drive on public streets? Do they not assume the daily public protection of police, fire and emergency services? Do they never enjoy public parks, pools or recreational facilities? Do they not benefit from the social insurance offered by the Social Security Administration? Do they not take for granted the control and protection of government regulators every time they buy medical supplies, meat or other foodstuffs? Do they not appreciate that because of government regulated licensing procedures, they do not have to personally investigate the qualifications of every physician, lawyer, dentist, CPA, psychologist and social worker they may need to employ? Do they not appreciate that because of government zoning enforcement a toxic waste dump cannot be placed right next to their property? Do they not daily enjoy the protection of the US military and defense services? The list goes on and on.

Certainly, every thinking person agrees that there is plenty of waste involved in the way government spends tax dollars, mostly because government programs must endure the cost overruns, fiscal shenanigans and outright fraud perpetrated by private contractors–government programs are easy marks for these business-suited crooks exactly because there is no funding for adequate oversight. But just as clearly, the fact remains that government sponsored programs, products and services (schools, parks, safety, roads, food, air and water regulations, to name only a few)  represent the closest measure we have in this country to “common wealth” that enhances the general quality of life and thus raises the standard of living for all citizens.

While I want to respect and understand the views of all fellow citizens, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend this current knee-jerk anti-government opinion as more than a sort of adolescent anti-authoritarian shriek. At the very least, I can only conclude that these folks use the term “government” to mean something other than the empirical designation of that term.

4 Comments

  1. Excellent, Normal Dan… Not only do I agree with your main points, I also like the measured manner in which you made your arguments. You clearly are trying to understand them, rather than just denigrate their position. Would that politicians running for office adhered to this policy!

    Montaigne talked about how important it is to address the stronghold of your opponents position rather than just trying to defeat them by focusing on their weakest arguments. You clearly tried to understand their position, but in the end it turned out that they didn’t *have* an argument!

    In preparation for the Fall 2011 Becker symposium on climate change denial, I put myself through the exercise of trying to come up with valid arguments for being skeptical about climate change. I eventually was able to work up 8 arguments, but even taken together they did not constitute an effective challenge against the urgent need to take action on climate change.

  2. While I don’t have much patience for much of the current debate that is reported by the media these days, it is worth recalling that the role of government has long been argued, even back to our Founding Fathers. I seem to recall that Jefferson made some kind of comment about the value of regular revolutions?

    While many of the current political statements seem ridiculous, there is usually at least a grain of truth there, sometimes more. I guess a question is why do the current anti-government comments have so much traction? Do the people arguing for less government really want less government? (Hard to believe since this same party also wants to abolish women’s rights to choose, are anti-gay marriage, and want to make corporations people, etc. via government interventions!) Isn’t this just about taxes (that everyone dislikes) and winning an election as far as the power-elite is concerned?

  3. Mike Lofgren wrote the “Right wing id unzipped” in yesterday’s Truthout: Mike Lofgren, Truthout: “Right-wingers have occasioned much recent comment…. Who are these people and what motivates them? To answer, one must leave the field of conventional political theory and enter the realm of psychopathology…. There are tens of millions of Americans who, although personally lacking the self-confidence, ambition and leadership qualities of authoritarian dominators like Gingrich or Sarah Palin, nevertheless empower the latter to achieve their goals while finding psychological fulfillment in

    MIke worked with the gov and Republicans for 30 years. It’s worth checking out. If you do, I’d like to know your asessment.

  4. Nicely argued, except that you seem to have completely ignored the possibility (probability) that the “programs, products and services” provided by the Government, that people have “benefitted” from, could not be povided to them more efficiently, effectively and cheaply by non-Government entities, e.g. businesses.

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