A Reminder- How Government Helps Make the “Self-Made” Man

There are myths proclaimed by some right-wing partisans and Ayn Rand acolytes that “rugged individualists” working alone have been responsible for America’s great accomplishments and that government is the enemy of progress. In their quest to reduce taxes, particularly for the wealthy, and cut the size of government, this myth has been promulgated by ideologues to gain support from the middle-class, needed to elect legislators who share their vision.

Unfortunately, many Americans have accepted this narrative and because of it, often vote against their own interests. In a recent essay, The Future of History, Francis Fukuyama noted “individuals are not sovereign entities, but beings heavily shaped by their surrounding societies.” Pounding away at the failings of “big government,” conservatives have ignored the positive effects of government and the fact that no one in the modern interconnected world is able to make it on his or her own. Aside from its role in national security and protecting Americans from foreign threats, the federal government is a necessary part of citizens’ everyday lives and provides the internal fabric that holds the nation together. Unlike the 18th century, for an individual to be successful in this day and age, government help is essential.

Businesses could not function without the nation’s infrastructure (though it currently needs work). Building the interstate highway system, bridges and tunnels and maintaining them, was and is a federal concern. The integrity of America’s ports and airports, and air traffic control, all comes under the aegis of federal agencies. Products and people could not move if it were not for the government. Apportioning the broadcast spectrum for TV, radio, cell phone companies and so forth, insuring the safety of transmission lines, pipelines, and so forth, are all functions of the federal government.

In addition to regulating interstate commerce, international trade agreements negotiated by the federal government set the ground rules for US trade with other nations, and have opened up markets for American products. American businesses are also protected by the government when foreign companies dump their goods in this country. Intellectual property rights, here and abroad are nominally safeguarded by the government, though in this area federal agencies have fallen short. The Export-Import Bank helps American companies sell their products to other nations.

Funds for research and development, since WW II, have come from the federal government over and above the private sector and have resulted in many benefits. The development of much of the Internet, global positioning systems, drones, came from work funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency). The NIH and funds for medical research have led to many advances, including treatments for cancer and other diseases.

Educational standards are promoted by the federal government and funding is provided to support K-12 schools and higher education, in addition to Head Start. Pell grants, Stafford loans and other programs allow many students to attend colleges they would otherwise not have been able to afford.

The safety of the foods Americans eat and the medications they use are federal government responsibilities. Federal regulators protect investors from financial predators and uphold the integrity of the banking system.

The government provides a safety net for older people and the disabled through Social Security, keeping them from impoverishment. Medical care for seniors and those who can’t afford it is covered by Medicare, Medicaid and other programs.

Businessmen and entrepreneurs need government to help them communicate with their suppliers and customers, receive materials and get their goods to market. The educated work force that businesses require depends on the local, state and federal governments, with federal agencies providing a supervisory role and extra funding. A large part of the health and safety of their workers is a federal responsibility. People who claim to have made it on their own are either unwilling to acknowledge the actions of government for ideological reasons, or are engaged in self-promotion.

The federal government is inefficient in many of its operations, but its expansion has occurred during both Democratic and Republican administrations. Those who rail against the government should focus on fixing it and not just making it smaller so they can pay less in taxes. And the money saved should go to paying down the deficit. For different reasons, both the weak and strong among us need a robust federal government in today’s world.

Resurrecting Democracy

A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.

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Author: ROBERT A. LEVINE, TMV Guest Voice Columnist

Political junkie, Vietnam vet, neurologist- two books on aging and dementia. Last book on health care reform- Shock Therapy for the American Health Care System. New book on the need for a centrist third party- Resurrecting Democracy- A Citizen's Call for a Centrist Third Party- will be available early October 2011

  • EEllis

    I’ll buy this when you can name me any half waymainstream conservative who want’s no govt, because that seems to be the criteria for this article. You either must shut up and except that it doesn’t matter how bloated and massive the fed govt gets or you want no govt at all. It’s bs. Political rhetoric at it’s worst. Forget actually seeing the other side or giving any benefit of doubt instead brand everyone who disagrees as ignorant fools who are selfish or stupid. Yep this tactic will work.

  • rudi
  • RP

    “Those who rail against the government should focus on fixing it and not just making it smaller so they can pay less in taxes. And the money saved should go to paying down the deficit.”

    AMEN!
    It can be fixed like using Zero Based budget procedures to support the existance of any program or expenditure. This could eliminate many duplicative programs.

    It could be smaller when fixed as out dated programs would be eliminated.

    BUT, do you really think there is any politician that is going to use the money to pay down debt? And if there was, would they be attacked becasue they were anti-women, anti-seniors, anti-education, Anti….?

  • adelinesdad

    I think Robert is right that some conservatives, at least judging from their rhetoric, ignore some of the benefits of government, acting as if there is no downside to cutting. However, Robert does the reverse in the OP by judging government programs only by their intentions and ignoring their unintended side effects, and by judging the programs individually instead of as a part of a federal government that clearly cannot afford them in the aggregate, even with higher taxes. I’d ask you: As we move further away from the 18th century, do you anticipate the trend of needing more and more government involvement will continue? If so, would we approach a point where whatever benefits individual programs might give us will be outweighed by the harm they do in the aggregate to private markets? If so, is it so unreasonable to suggest that we might already be past that point?

    But as for this:

    “Those who rail against the government should focus on fixing it and not just making it smaller so they can pay less in taxes. And the money saved should go to paying down the deficit.”

    I agree on both points. Lowering taxes should not be done when we have bills that we can’t pay. This is a conservative principle: you break it, you buy it. And by “you” and I mean “us”. Regardless of whether we agree on the things we are paying for, we still have to pay for it. The alternative is to let our kids pay for it, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing conservative about that. And, if we do manage to reduce the size of the government, the savings should not go to pay for other programs (ie. Medicare cuts should not go to fund another entitlement program, for example).

  • adelinesdad

    To not put my argument in such utilitarian terms, I should have said this:

    “If so, would we approach a point where whatever benefits individual programs might give us will be outweighed by the harm they do in the aggregate to private markets *and personal freedom*?”

    Obviously the meaning and value of “personal freedom” is subjective, but I still think it is important enough to consider even if it complicates the issue.

  • http://www.robertlevinebooks.com ROBERT A. LEVINE, TMV Guest Voice Columnist

    Conservatives don’t want to end government but they want to downsize it considerably without admitting that it plays an important and necessary role in all our lives. The goal should be to make government more efficient and less wasteful- and as I said, any savings should go to reducing the national debt and budget deficits and not to cutting taxes.

  • zephyr

    Thank-you for the excellent post Mr. Levine. A solid reminder to those whose ideologies have taken over their higher memory functions. Hard work and talent are almost always at the heart of any successful venture, but like good seeds sown in bad soil, this isn’t enough. How many Henry Fords and Bill Gates would have made the same strides had they been born in a different place and time? A fertile environment can make the difference. Partisans need to take the reality shower more often.

  • dduck

    RAL, you are correct of course. I would also say most conservatives, liberals, moderates, Reps and Dems, do want a slim efficient government, not a profligate spend thrift bloated one.

    But woe unto you who admits that the other guys have half a brain. (They will admit that the other half is of a devil.)

  • Rcoutme

    Well, first off, the debt that we are ‘accumulating’ is a misnomer. Please see my article here: http://themoderatevoice.com/143863/how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-mmt-guest-voice/

    Next, if we were to get politicians to understand MMT, we would realize that taxes have nothing to do with spending (by the Federal Gov’t, remember state and local governments do not get to print their money). Regarding this: paying down the debt equals lowering the net savings of the private sector. That may not be a good idea during an economic bust.

    The Federal Government needs to determine what it needs by way of goods and services. It needs to then create the money to pay for them. After that, it needs to set tax policies to prevent the creation of the previous money from causing too much inflation (by taxing, the government destroys money by taking it out of circulation). Once this is figured out, all other considerations are STUPID!!!!!!

    Let me reiterate: The “National Debt” is a gimmick to allow the Federal Reserve to help set interest rates. There is no other purpose for it. We should not be ‘borrowing’ and paying interest on the money we ‘borrowed.’ We print the money (and more to the point, the Fed keeps the numbers in the computer). T-bills are simply a savings account at the Fed instead of a checking account. That’s it. We do not need to offer a savings account–we could simply stop doing so and then the balances would be in checking accounts.

    We can not run out of money unless Congress, in its infinite stupidity, decides to do so (see August 2011 for a clear example). We do NOT use tax money to pay for things. We pay for them via the accounts in the Federal Reserve. The Treasury Department does not even bother to check if tax money has come in! It doesn’t need to–it prints the money!

    Please, please, please people, come to realize that we are no longer on a Gold Standard. The entire fiscal argument is one of angels fitting on the head of a pin! We can not leave any real Federal Debt to our children to pay back. They will consume the goods and services they produce–just as we consume goods and services we produce (we being all people of today, including foreign sources).

    Any ‘debt’ that we have is payable in U.S. dollars (stroke of a keyboard, all paid!!)

    In case someone out there thinks that paying the ‘debt’ by monetization is inflationary: T-bills are money. Don’t believe me? Buy a U.S. savings bond and then cash it in. You get money.

    Won’t the foreign holders of our debt come collecting? Okay–collecting what? They can use their reserves to purchase goods and services or they can keep them at the Fed. We do not give out gold (or any other item) in exchange for our money. Period. End of story. At all. In any scenario. Neither does any other country that has its own currency and issues its debt in it.

    What about the Euro Zone? They no longer print their own currency–thus they are, proverbially, screwed!

  • http://www.americaincontext.com Barky

    I think Mr. Levine missed three key items in his OP: 1) many of the richest folks in history made profit right off government procurement, whether railroads or war materials or what-not ( although, admittedly, in this day and age profit margins for govt. projects are smaller when you factor in all the reporting requirements, etc.), 2) others made wealth due to extremely low mineral leases, which effectively ripped off the people (if you believe public lands belong to all of us), and 3) most importantly, having a solid regulatory climate including a legal system actually improves commerce. When a climate exists where there are mechanisms for fair redress of wrongs and processes and procedures to ensure that people & businesses are not simply ripped off, there also exists a confidence to conduct commerce openly. Otherwise it grinds to a halt.

    If you doubt that last point I suggest you look at countries with business anarchy and determine if it’s possible to make a buck there.

    Our current regulatory climate is far from perfect, to be sure. But a good, solid one that regulates in order to provide honesty in transactions and assurances that goods & services will be safe & sound with a clear system for redress of wrongs is essential for a healthy economy.