So why have a government at all? What is the role of government?
These questions seem to get to the heart of the debate between liberals and conservatives in the United States. For the Democrats, the government’s job is to promote social welfare, to make society better for everyone no matter how wealthy or not wealthy they are. For Republicans, less government is better; the less the role of government in society the better we all are.
Moderate, pragmatic liberals, such as myself, believe all the members of a society have some responsibility for each other. I’m not saying I am responsible for everything the guy next to me does, I am not. That guy is ultimately responsible for his actions, regardless of the reasons for his actions. But how that guy is treated by those around him affects his thinking, attitudes, mental health, and wellbeing. The advantages given to one part of society influences, for good or bad, the other parts of society.
Modern, new school (not motivated by racism), conservatives worry about government tyranny. They are sincere with this belief, although they exaggerate. Still, they are correct that tyranny is something to be watched for and pushed back on. This argument loses strength when conservatives support, loudly, a large military budget, a strong police force and long prison sentences for breaking laws. Those are exactly the tools need to create tyranny. Modern conservatives also believe a society works better in almost all possible ways when government plays a minimum role, with the notable exception, as already mentioned, of defense and law enforcement.
Perhaps, if everyone played fair and were fair minded, having a minimum government involvement in social affairs might work. But not everyone plays fair. People do not play fair. There are people who will deliberately look for flaws in a society, like taking advantage of older people who are no longer mentally sharp, or children and teens who do not understand what they are getting themselves into, they will take what they want from those people even if it causes them harm, and they do it without remorse. But even good, normal people do not play fair. Most of us take care of ourselves first, which is what we should do. To do that we will often frantically make sure we get what we need or want, only then we worry about the less powerful or poor. For example, after we make sure we have a good income, savings, or big house, then we might give a little to help others.
The flaw in the conservative approach is their implicit belief that if left alone society is fair for everyone. It is not. Those who have money or power can make sure they keep their money and power, as well as increase both their money and power. What this means is even if the economic pie grows, it will grow more for them than the less powerful and less wealth.
I will agree with conservatives that laws and regulations are a blunt instrument for curing social ills. I also agree that when economic forces can be used that is a better solution. But either case requires government action. With poverty, it might be possible to use economic forces to help reduce it, but that will require laws to redirect those forces. Economic forces, when left unchecked, favor those who are already rich and powerful. To redirect market forces so those forces will work to benefit everyone, we will have to create laws to redirect them.
Good governing is a balancing act and an art.
We create our society to help ourselves as a society. This includes a police force to protect us from criminals and a defense force to protect us from foreign invaders. But where is it written that is all a government should do? Why stop there? If the government has the right to tax us for protection and defense, it has the right to tax us to help with other things, such as to promote social equality.
Still, a government gone crazy does no one any good and risks evolving into tyranny. It can happen even here in the United States. For us to have good governance we must recognize the need to balance these two forces, the need to create laws to direct the economy and social forces and the need to not overdo it and bring about tyranny. This is why the United States Constitution sets up a system of checks and balances.
Use government to help its citizens, that is what it is for, but always be conscious and watchful for unnecessary government overreach.
There are people in the public sector with a range of experiences that have no equivalent in business, but are essential to governing, like keeping a kid in school or helping someone get and hold a job. The value of those skills can’t easily be measured against a bottom line. Dee Dee Myers