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.
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.