For several decades leading U.S. politicians of both parties have sought office, in part, by casting doubts and defamations on the government they aspire to lead. No matter what party, no matter what level of government, the insults pour out. Bureaucrats, they say, stand in the way of progress, and if we had less government at all levels we would be better off as a nation.
The message has been received.
Pew Research polls show that support of government in the U.S. has declined dramatically over the past fifty years from well over half thinking government did good things to well under half retaining that view today. Most U.S. citizens today think government is an obstacle standing in the way of progress.
The political signs are quite visible. Elected federal office seekers find it helpful to run against the government in which they hope to serve. Of course, reasonable criticisms are useful and usually make sense, but as a matter of history and contemporary reality, they do not. Unreasonable far outweigh the reasonable.
The critics have won. “Elect me and I will go to Washington and drain the swamp. Washington is at the center of the deep state which is controlling nearly all aspects of life, public and private, to the detriment of the latter. If it is not stopped the public will lose its freedom, and we will all sink into a morass of meaningless and impoverished muck.”
It is hard to fathom how the critics can believe that life before big government was better than life now. It was for a few, but for the population at-large, life was tough. Look at the first half of the last century … the days of little or surely less government activity. Ask, how was it better than the second half. It will be a short discussion.
Let’s look at government and the federal worker and their role in the U.S. economy from our founding onward. That role is far from negative. Why do candidates paint the opposite picture? Because it works.
After years of government-bashing, the public has come to believe it. In a survey on causes and effects of government-bashing, one government employee told that when his out-of-town mother calls and asks what he is doing for a living, he tells her he plays piano in a local brothel. That sounds better to her, he thinks, than the truth: he is a high-level civil servant.
Let’s look at some of the things that government does that we as a society often take for granted.
The Postal Service, e-mail and the internet, NASA, medical research, government regulations, and patents are just a few examples.
Take the venerable old Postal Service. We acknowledge the Postal Service as a leader and early model of economic development: government initiation and private follow-up and continuation. It played and still does play a central role in our economy beyond mail delivery.
It was founded in the colonial period and is the only agency noted in the Constitution. It delivered the mail, which was then the only means of communication, but it also helped big-time in developing the economy.
For example, it built roads for its purposes and opened them to the public. Some of these roads still are known by their early names, for example, the Boston Post Road.
The Service bought some of the earliest flying machines, helping that industry get off the ground. It trained early pilots. Charles Lindbergh was one of them. It gave a boost to the airline industry by paying for space on commercial flights, whether or not it needed such purchased space each day. (That ended only a few years ago.) The Postal Service pays for commercial air services many times each day.
The Postal Service developed and maintains the ZIP Code system and makes it available for a low fee to any user. Where would UPS and FedEx be today without it? Is there any other outfit around that could develop and keep current such a complex system? Probably not.
The Postal Service also started the Weather Service.
The internet and email were inventions in the Department of the Army (DARPA). The technology was invented and first built in government, then turned over to commercial enterprise for profit and further development.
The GPS system we have on our phones and in our automobiles and used by delivery, taxis and other private enterprises was a government-developed technology turned over to the private sector.
NASA developed much new technology, which found its way into commercial sectors. Everything from Teflon pans to the building of private-launch vehicles. Space travel was born in government, in NASA. Space travel is just now at the beginning of its private sector life with several rocket launch companies in operation to soon carry passengers into space.
Government is a huge contributor to medical research, the largest in the nation through the various National Institutes of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are major players in safeguarding public health worldwide. Public health data bases used often by the health care industry are maintained there.
Regulations are the prime motivating juice of those who despise the “deep state.” But where would we be without them?
Would the public deposit money in bank accounts without a government guarantee of that deposit? Would the public invest in mutual funds if government did not have oversight of those companies? Those who look forward to cleaner air and water rely on government for leadership.
We might over-regulate in some areas, and do it not so well in others, but reform is the key, not abolishment.
What would we use for currency; bit coins run by a private system of computers with virtually no transparency?
Even more fundamental than modern regulation, could we have private ownership of property, including the sale of it, if governments did not keep land records and record each sale as it occurs over the decades and centuries? How could property be developed or sold without those records and enforcement of ownership rights?
What would happen to investment in inventions if there were no Patent Office?
So far we have only scratched the surface by looking at a few of government’s activities in support of industrial development. This survey of government functions is far from complete. We have not touched on national defense, parks and recreation facilities and disaster relief.
It is the skilled and dedicated federal worker who keeps all of these systems flowing and working. Often underpaid, largely underappreciated, and increasingly furloughed.
Hopefully, this brief piece is enough to convince some skeptics that we need government; striving for better government, of course, but government, nevertheless.
Those dismissive of that thought should be careful we do not get what they hope for.