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Governments are us, and we can help ourselves

Dane Smith
Courtesy of Growth & Justice
  Dane Smith

One encouraging theme — much more “we” and much less “me” — is emerging as Americans and Minnesotans try to sort through the severe economic trauma of the last few weeks.

The congressional package designed to stabilize the economy, aka “The Bailout,” might work or might not work the way it’s intended. It might be too much or not enough. It might be, as conservatives say, the wrong kind of intrusion into the economy. It might be, as some liberals contend, too much help for greedy manipulators and CEOs, and too little help for workers and homeowners.

But there really does seem to be a consensus that at least something had to be done, and that the government had to do it, and that we need and value our government. Voices from left, right, and the middle seem to be agreeing that the business of America is not just unregulated business and seizing every opportunity for profit, but also democracy and common good and taking care of each other, and finally, that governments can and should do that sort of thing.

Retreat from a damaging notion
We might be witnessing yet another disorganized retreat from this damaging and false notion that our public sector is no good and that our private sector is all good. This notion was epitomized by Ronald Reagan’s endlessly repeated declaration some 30 years ago that the government is not the answer to our problems, but the problem itself.

As a kid in the 1950s, watching movie westerns, I always breathed a sigh of relief that moment when the blue-coated U.S. Cavalry (taxpayer-financed, come to think of it), came riding over the hill to save the wagon train (individuals and small business folks heading west to seek wealth and economic opportunity) and restored order. I got a little bit of that feeling, I could almost hear the trumpets blowing “charge,” as U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and President Bush, perhaps the most doctrinaire anti-tax and anti-government president in modern history, came forward to try to save the day with taxpayer funds.

Our governments and communities rescue us all the time: when our kids get lost in the woods; when our aged parents outlive their savings; when hurricanes sweep away the levees (also built by governments) or tornadoes and floods rip up our towns and farms; and when local airlines are on the verge of bankruptcy. Our government at the federal, state and local level is especially responsive to cries for help from business owners.

Of more fundamental, day-to-day, non-emergency importance, governments also provide the foundation for business to flourish. And this is where most of our tax money goes.

From workers to transportation systems
Governments produce an educated workforce (about 40 percent of our state-local taxes), transportation systems that get workers to work and products to market, a sophisticated infrastructure that provides everything from fresh water to telecommunications bandwidth regulation, and law-and-order and conflict resolution in the courts. All of which without commerce would be impossible.

Governments all over the world’s legitimate democracies and advanced economies also provide a great deal of economic security, and public health protections, and absolutely vital environmental safeguards. These common goods often are missing in so-called Third World economies, whose competition we are supposed to fear and whose models we are sometimes encouraged to emulate.

Few political pundits have a better grasp of the new ascendance of the “we” — the growing recognition of community and governments as at least equal partners with individualism and markets — than David Brooks. He is generally recognized as a conservative columnist, although many ideological libertarians disown his recent writings.

In a remarkable column last month, Brooks wrote that modern conservative godfather Barry Goldwater helped create a highly individualist hero, the “stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe.”

‘Intensely social creatures’
But this “individualist description of human nature seems to be wrong,” Brooks wrote, and a “tide of research” in recent years is underlining “one old truth — that we are intensely social creatures.”

“If there’s a thread running through the gravest current concerns,” Brooks continued, “it is that people lack a secure environment in which they can lead their lives. Wild swings in global capital and energy markets buffet family budgets. Nobody is sure the health care system will be there when they need it. National productivity gains don’t seem to alleviate economic anxiety. Inequality stains national cohesion. …”

The 30-year course toward less government and more individualism has helped produce the greatest national inequality, a greater share of wealth and income in the top 1 percent of households, since 1929. We can only pray that 79 years later the same inequality will not coincide with another fact of 1929, a complete Wall Street collapse and the onset of the Great Depression.

And more of us can agree, as Brooks does, that the problems “straining the social fabric aren’t directly addressed by maximizing individual freedom” or by throwing tax cuts and vouchers at everything.

If conservatives want to modernize, he concludes, “they’re probably going to have to follow the route the British conservatives have already trod, and project a conservatism that emphasizes society as well as individuals, security as well as freedom, a social revival and not just an economic one and the community as opposed to the state.”

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice. A nonpartisan advocate for fair taxation and smart public investment, Growth & Justice believes a sustainable economy provides the foundation for a just society.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Vonya Ereye on 10/14/2008 - 10:36 am.

    Mr. Smith’s argument is shallow at best. Yes, today’s conservative is about individual liberty and freedom just like the founding father’s believed. And yes, today’s liberals are all about collectivism. However, this does not mean conservatives are all about only themselves and greedy.

    When you protect each individual’s right to exist, be free and prosper, you do not squash their right to assimilate to a community. The individual simply asks that they be granted the freedom to do so without taking away their individual rights. In other words, it’s not up to the government to take care of special interest groups, it’s up to the individuals to group together by choice to do so.

    It’s private charity by choice vs government charity by force.

    When government forces me to give my money to support welfare programs, they infringe on my individual rights. When government forces me to pay for someone else’s bus ride, it infringes on my rights.

    History has proven, as will the future, that private charity (the real community) has, can and will always take better care of their community than a government program.

    Reagan’s corralary qualifies here yet again, Government is not the solution, it is the problem.

  2. Submitted by Bill Siegel on 10/14/2008 - 11:54 am.

    Old-school conservatives like the previous commenter are advocating a social system that more closely resembles anarchy than anything else. I for one choose to cast my vote for someone who believes in the potential for government, not someone who works to dismantle it.

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 10/14/2008 - 04:23 pm.

    My general observation on the “conservative” of the early 21st century is one who supported deregulation of the financial services industry and then leveraged their bank to the breaking point. Instead of being allowed to fail, Junior has gone to Uncle Hank Paulson to get bailed out. Moreover, the “conservative” of the early 21st century hasn’t done diddly-squat to shrink the size of government–they have increased it.

    And before anyone goes on a Pelosi-Reid rant, I will remind all that the Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress between 2002 and 2006 in addition to the White House.

    Historically, I think the analysis of Reagan’s philosophy is fundamentally correct, but I have to wonder if Ronnie would have been willing to go along with pumping nearly a trillion dollars of taxpayer money into the financial services sector, given current circumstances.

  4. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/15/2008 - 11:04 am.

    What is often lost in all this is that capitalism vs. a government regulated economic system is not mutually exclusive. In fact capitalism works best when it is most fair (i.e. a distribution of the wealth that allows bottom up consumer spending and participation); and has modest rules to regulate excesses built into that economic model. Indeed, if there is any silver lining to our present crisis, it is that these facts have emerged and are now visible. It is the new path even the Bush administration is utilizing to help create a solution.

  5. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/17/2008 - 03:27 pm.

    “History has proven, as will the future, that private charity (the real community) has, can and will always take better care of their community than a government program.”

    Would you care to share any specific examples of when history has proven this? Because it seems to me that before government programs such as social security and medicare came into effect, private charity did a pretty lousy job of taking care of the community.

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