During the town hall debate between President Obama and Romney, one question came up that was never adequately answered. What does government do for us, for the people? To listen to conservatives, all government appears to do is collect taxes from hard-working people and impose tough regulations on innovative companies. Conservatives would have us believe that liberals want a government that rules every instant of our lives, that coddles us from cradle to grave. They are wrong in all of this.
- Guards our Freedom. The single most important thing any government does is to protect its citizens from harm. It establishes a standing army that fights those that would do us harm, both at home and abroad. Even further than that, government protects our right to own property and protects that property from arbitrary expropriation without due process.
Even more than this, over time, the rights of persecuted minorities have expanded to the extent that they can now live openly in society without fear. The federal government fought a bitter war to destroy slavery. In countless judicial rulings, such as Brown v Board of Education, rights expand to cover victims of persecution. Government installed the Civil Rights Act, against which conservatives fought for decades.
Government is extending rights to gay people, who can come out without severe recriminations. Women can vote and live in society as equals rather than live under the heel of their husbands, fathers and brothers. Immigrants, receive rights far more expansive than those in most countries. Even undocumented immigrants do have recourse in the courts, although it is still difficult for them to exercise those rights.
Conservatives want to take those rights away, to allow for the exploitation and persecution of minorities, gays, immigrants, and women.
- Allows the use of public land. Government gives out land for a variety of uses, including for use as settlements, and has done so for two centuries. Oil companies can use the land to extract hydrocarbons and natural gas. Mining companies can extract metals and minerals. Logging companies can cut down vast acreage of forest. Agriculture, oil companies, the entertainment industry, steel mills all use enormous quantities of the nation’s water to drive their businesses. All of these resources are often used for a fraction of their value to drive economic growth and provide companies with a base for growth.
Corporations often complain that they cannot use more public land for oil drilling or development of one form or another. That land is often used for people’s entertainment, for hiking, camping, or photographing wildlife, and for preserving that land. This is also a public value guaranteed by the federal government, ensuring that the land is not monopolized by a few.
- Providing Education. The government helps ensure that we all have a basic education that will allow us all to go on and lead full, productive lives rather than being stuck in low wage dead-end, menial jobs our entire lives. It enables us to read and write, do basic arithmetic and understand something of the world around us.
Conservatives have tried for years to eliminate the Department of Education and force people to cater for their own education. They know full well that people do not have the resources to cater for their own education.
- Life after work. The implementing of Social Security by Franklin D Roosevelt was one of the most singular acts of social foresight in this nations history. It provides at the very least a minimal standard of living for millions of people who otherwise would be left destitute, homeless, without hope. In addition, Medicare ensures that the elderly have at least some medical care at the most vulnerable point in their lives.
Conservatives work tirelessly to try to destroy these essential programs, to privatize them and place people once more at the mercy of the markets and unscrupulous investment managers. They do not seem to want their citizens to live reasonable lives in their old age.
- Public Health. Government ensures that their citizens stay healthy by providing basic services and infrastructure, like sewers, waste disposal, and clean water. They make sure that our food is free of harmful bacteria and heavy metals through the FDA, the EPA ensures that our air is not polluted. Government research enables pharmaceutical companies to produce blockbuster drugs.
These are all programs that conservatives would love to end. The Environmental Protection Agency probably tops the list of agencies that conservatives would eradicate, along with the Clean Water Act. Conservatives want private industries to offer these services at greatly increased cost, or better still, not at all.
- Providing Transportation. The federal government provides us all with safe, well maintained roads, including the interstate highway system put in place under Eisenhower. Rail systems, canals, ports, airports, light rail, are all systems that the federal government helps to put in place, providing funding, land and geological surveys. Subway systems such as that in New York City, bus networks are all there because of government. Private corporations do not have the desire or the funds to put in place large, complex networks, nor is there much profit in doing so. We rely on government to provide this for us.
Conservatives fight tirelessly to cut funding for Amtrak and high-speed rail, leaving us decades behind parts of Europe, China and Japan in our ability to move our people around. They want roads controlled by local authorities, which would mean more toll roads, more delays, and far less efficient roads.
- Communications. Organizations like the Post Office are essential to our ability to send and receive communications from across the globe. The Internet was a program started by government, the agency known as ARPA, which produced the first version of the Internet, Arpanet. Government subsidized communication from the telegraph to television and radio, mass communications via satellite at a time when corporations just did not have the financial clout to do so.
Given the financial difficulties of the Post Office, conservatives would be happy to let it disappear, and along with it hundreds of thousands of jobs for hard-working Americans.
- Energy. Government subsidies support a wide swathe of energy industries, providing billions in subsidies to oil and gas companies, and electrical utilities. Government builds dams that supply hydroelectric power to millions of Americans. Nuclear power plants rely on research done by government during and after the war.
Conservatives don’t like government, but they are happy that energy companies receive subsidies in the billions. These companies would not be making a profit without government largesse.
- Scientific Research. Government does a lot of the basic scientific and technological research that powers our technology start-ups, if not directly, then through grants to universities and research centers. NASA is a startlingly successful agency that produced enormous quantities of basic fundamental scientific advancement and essentially gave that knowledge to the private sector.
Conservatives prefer that government not finance any research whatsoever, that corporations should do research and government should get out of the way. There is much research that corporations are unwilling to do, such as research into vaccines or global climate change. Conservatives do not want research into climate change because it violates their basic ideology.
- Fighting Authoritarianism. Our government stood as the last bastion to the triumph of totalitarian states like Nazi Germany, The Soviet Union, and Imperial Japan. Without the central government, despots and dictators would rule the world instead of the breakout of democracy that we see across the globe.
Conservatives are doing their level best to change that dynamic, to support dictators like Mubarak, and the Shah of Iran. Democracy is anathema to their ideology, through which they would roll back the universal franchise.
Government is not the enemy. In a democracy, we are the government, the people who go out and vote for our representatives. The people we choose to represent us make government what it is. Conservatives should stop fighting democratic institutions.
I borrowed the main points for this post from this excellent article by Rexx Nutting. His article deserves a reading.
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