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.
I tend to agree with all of your points on this one, even had a discussion on Facebook regarding the privatization of roads last night. The person I was talking with provided this article in favor of privatization, https://www.google.com/…/articles/roads-without-the-state/ and was curious if you had seen it before. If you have, I’d like to hear your counter argument. I believe it has some valid points and proposes an arguably sound model of how to do it. Then the discussion went towards private police/firefighters/military, at which point I had to disagree. Definitely an interesting budget proposal that was put out there today.
I agree with much of the argument regarding toll roads. They are a way to finance construction and upkeep and they also are the only to directly tax the user; here in mid Missouri our tax dollars pay for highways that others use while crossing our state but we may collect no taxes from those drivers.
In my initial post I may have misspoken when I said there would be no private interest in highways. What I should have said (too little coffee or too little sleep) is that with highways we cannot turn over decisions regarding the placement of new highways to private developers. As I’ve argued in previous posts, I oppose using the eminent domain power necessary to build new roads for private development. So if the government chooses the new routes and secures the necessary land via eminent domain, I don’t necessarily oppose private development and maintenance of those roads.
I do think the piece you cite over estimates the market. In other words, I’m less convinced than the author that private companies will do a better job of maintaining the roads than say MODOT. Private companies are understandably motivated by profit, so without strict governmental oversight I do not think they would necessarily do better at maintaining the roads.
I appreciate your comments. Keep ’em coming!
I agree with you on the oversight and mentioned as much in my discussion. Of course the response was that we would have the choice to take a different road, or even change jobs to be able to take a different route. Which seems cumbersome and illogical. So just to play devil’s advocate here, since companies are motivated by profit, it would be in their best interest to maintain and design safer roads otherwise folks wouldn’t use them thus lose their share of the toll. The same thing is happening with McDonald’s. I refuse to eat there, I’ve had too many bad experiences with them. They are doing some serious marketing to showcase their improved quality of product because lots of people feel the same way I do about their food, which I tell my toddler, “McDonald’s is yucky.” At this point MoDOT doesn’t really do a whole lot of the actual construction, we saw that with the new overpasses and round-a-bouts, contracted out to Emery Sapp and sons. In my opinion it was well planned and well executed. There was some confusion the first few months with the dog-bone round-a-bout, but that has eased and traffic congestion on Rangeline and 70 was significantly reduced. From my understanding that was all designed by ESS, but supervised and approved by MoDOT. I wish I had the source to cite, but I read that when roads in European nations are found to be sub-par, i.e. causing accidents, then those roads are reengineered. The same doesn’t happen here, we reduce the speed limit in that area assuming it’s the motorist’s fault. So the argument there would be between taking the government out of the equation and letting the market decide (which when considering the land requirement for roads is not really feasible) and spending even more tax money on oversight and repairs. In the course of the discussion I found this piece about the amount of funds collected via a fuel tax. http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/statistics/motor-fuel-tax-revenue. I don’t recall the policy shift that caused such a drop in 2009 fuel tax revenue, perhaps it was replaced by funding from income or property tax? It seems like the fuel tax would be the most logical way to pay for roads and road upkeep. The argument can be made for that though that it puts a higher cost burden on lower-income families, but it is also similar to a toll in that through-travelers would most likely need to refill on gas at some point and thus feed the fund.
You are exactly right that most state highway departments don’t actually do the more involved construction projects. They mostly fill potholes, patch roads, clear frozen roads, and effectuate what are generally smaller construction projects. They also are the agency responsible for contracting with ESS and others for the larger projects (or at least I assume that is the case).
I believe you and I are saying the same thing. I just want to be certain private contractors meet expectations established by the governmental agency since that agency is responsible for my taxes.
I’m still not certain about tolls. I moved here twenty years ago and the folks in power were talking about the need to update I-70 even then. Twenty years later it still hasn’t happened. I hate paying tolls (we drive in Chicago several times a year and get really tired of pulling through the booths), but they are the only way to ensure users are paying for the service. There is no assurance drivers who enter Missouri on one side of the state will stop and buy gas before exiting the other side. Anyway, I think I could be swayed either way with enough evidence.
Yes we’re definitely saying the same thing, just thought the other side of the argument had some “good” points, and wanted your thoughts. I hear you about Chicago, I lived there for half a year and actually did avoid using the toll roads for the most part. It made my commute a little longer, but that’s the price we pay. Actually, that makes me think that the toll price there is more of a convenience fee. At any rate, I’m enjoying your blog a lot, it’s hard to find independent voices above the crowd.