On the news this morning a member of Congress said “I don’t know anything government does well other than defend the country”. Of course my ears pricked up and the squirrels in my old head started spinning the wheels. Is he correct?
Libertarians argue that government is far too big and that it should only perform the functions specifically outlined in or reasonably implied from the Constitution. I think most of us have at least some libertarian tendencies because independence and freedom from government intervention are in the American DNA, probably a consequence of our history. And I absolutely agree that government is too big and that administrative bodies often impose silly regulations on society and the economy. I also agree that government is often very inefficient. However, I’m not at all interested in making government go away. Here are a few governmental functions I’m happy to let my tax dollars cover.
- Fire and police protection. I don’t think I really need to defend this. I like the idea that I can call 911 if our house is on fire, if I see an automobile accident, or if I see someone suspicious lurking in our yard.
- Protecting the environment. I mentioned this in a previous post. We have quantifiable evidence that the air and water are cleaner since the creation of EPA, and we can look right across our southern border and see the consequences of government inaction. Does EPA sometimes overreach? Yes, but I appreciate the agency’s overall impact.
- As someone who flies quite often, I’m very happy that the FAA imposes regulations on airlines, requiring them to inspect and replace engines and other equipment at regular intervals, randomly drug testing pilots, providing air traffic control to keep planes from flying in to each other, and more. Do I think I should be required to remove my shoes when I go through security? No. It is a silly regulation, but I’ll accept that inconvenience knowing that in other ways the FAA makes flying in the U.S. very safe.
- Local zoning ordinances. I actually turned down a job many years ago and one of the reasons (among many) was that the town did not have zoning ordinances. I realized this when I saw ramshackled mobile homes sitting next to nice homes, bars close to schools and churches, and neighborhoods next to industrial parks. I’m not being a snob at all, but zoning ordinances are necessary to protect property values.
- Parks. All levels of government set aside publicly owned land for common enjoyment. This is a great idea. There would be no incentive for a private company to buy 3,500 square miles and designate it as a park, but I’ve visited Yellowstone National Park several times and am glad the government does so. The same is true of state parks here in Missouri, and our local government has purchased large chunks of land for sports complexes as well as biking and walking trails. States also provide lakes in which we may fish and land on which we may hunt.
- Highways. Again, there is no private incentive for building streets, roads, and highways. I would prefer putting a large portion of transportation money into rail systems, but absent that I can at least travel to visit friends and family on publicly-funded highways.
- Libraries. Being able to visit my local library either in-person or virtually is a great benefit. I regularly check out e-books at no cost, and that saves me quite a chunk of change over buying e-books for my Nook.
- Postal Service. The USPS processes 353,000 pieces of mail every minute of the day and generates $227 million in revenue every day. The USPS receives no federal money and would operate much better and efficiently if Congress would just leave the agency alone. Sending a letter across country for less than 50 cents knowing it will almost certainly arrive within a few days is a bargain. And the USPS is battling forces beyond its control such as email.
- Curtailing blatant discrimination. Prior to the 1950’s schools were segregated. Prior to the 1960’s minorities were not give equal access to restaurants, water fountains, or restrooms in certain parts of the country. Prior to 1967 employers were allowed to discriminate on the basis of age. Prior to 1971 men were legally given first right to a family estate. Prior to 2015 the right to marry was not guaranteed to same sex couples. All these forms of discrimination and more have been addressed by government.
- Educating our citizens. Free public education (k-12), the G.I. Bill, land grants to states to create universities, Pell Grants, free lunch programs for underprivileged kids, and much more.
- Food safety. Local governments require food service employees to complete a proper food handling class and they inspect restaurants for cleanliness violations. State governments impose regulations such as temperature to which restaurants must cook food. The federal government provides food inspectors, normally at the point of production.
- And much more. Government prohibits organized cock fighting and dog fighting and controls puppy mills (or at least does so in some states), it protects my rights such as speech and assembly, it makes the workplace safer (if OSHA had been around a few years earlier my Dad would have been spared a major injury), local and state governments provide health departments that provide some care for the underprivileged, state governments regulate professions such as physicians and cosmetologists to ensure they are trained properly, and on and on…..
Could government do these and other things better? Absolutely. As mentioned above, government is often inefficient. Further, it doesn’t always represent the common citizen and its decisions are certainly influenced by money. And sometimes government makes dumb decisions based on petty partisanship. However, it does many things well in addition to keeping us safe from foreign threats.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a few weeks I’m sure you know that I have addressed and will continue to address things the government does not do well and things government should not do at all, but after hearing the Congressman’s comment this morning I thought a little perspective was in order.