07/28/2010 01:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Defense of "Big" Government

It's a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time to be the world's oldest living democratic republic. Americans are down on their government, and -- like a Sitka spruce on Sarah Palin's property -- no branch is safe. The administration is slumping in the polls, the Supreme Court is taking heat for its highest-profile decisions, and Congress' approval rating is hovering near twenty-two percent, which, to put it in perspective, is fully ten points less than the proportion of games the Baltimore Orioles win.

The country is losing patience with a fiscal strategy that, like all fiscal strategies, has proven incapable of instant gratification -- though the glacial pendulum of the economy is at last on a positive trajectory, it has so far seemed to lack the velocity necessary to give the appearance of a vigorous swing. Progressives sympathetic to ambitious legislative initiatives are angry at conservatives for successfully watering down health care and financial reform, and conservatives who detest such programs are angry at progressives for successfully voting them through at all.

Whatever animosity the left and right harbor towards each other, however, is no match for the loathing the citizenry at large feels towards that dreaded, sprawling, faceless, corrupt beast -- an entity so repulsive that it literally gushes oil and routinely leads otherwise-sane gold prospectors to don tri-corner hats -- the federal government.

Anti-governance as an American political philosophy was, appropriately enough, best summarized by its patron saint. In his first inaugural address in 1981, President Reagan told our nation that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," and in doing so lent credence to an easy vilification that would become conservatism's shiniest and most durable lodestar for the next thirty years -- from Grover Norquist ("I don't want to abolish government... I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub") to the Tea Party's 'Don't Tread On Me' revival circus.

It's not just Republicans who abhor "big" government, either; moderate politicians from both parties can regularly be heard decrying the concept, and even liberals for whom a New New Deal would mean the best Christmas ever shy away from using the 'b'-word to describe the government they desire (in much the same way that they shy away from using the word "liberal" to describe themselves, or the way that they shy away from... everything). So toxic is the federal government these days that the House Minority Leader's master strategy for becoming Speaker rests on a Gandalfian plan to effectively halt all new regulations by putting them to a congressional vote (the almost-cleverly titled REINS Act). It's not difficult to read the political climate of 2010: government is bad.

Here's the thing, though; here is the deepest secret nobody knows, the root of the root and the bud of the bud: government is good. Government is good. It's how we bring our heads together to solve the problems we can't solve alone; it's how we let our voices and opinions be heard; it's how we protect those among us who need our protection; it's how we keep our country free from tyranny and injustice.

Ronald Reagan knew that: he expanded federal programs (including social security), signed the largest tax increase in American history, supported gun control legislation, and tripled the federal deficit. Barack Obama knows it too -- see the aforementioned legislative royal rumbles of the past eighteen months. If the private sector is the engine of our economy, government is the road that makes it safe to drive. We know what happens when cars go off the road.

Don't get me wrong: inefficient government, big or small, is not good. Reckless spending is just as damaging as reckless not-spending, and the problems imposed by bloated deficits are serious indeed. There are, to be sure, large federal programs that are undoubtedly unwieldy, oversaturated, or unwise. But those who demonize the institution of government as inherently opposed to the people -- those who see regulations and spending programs as shackles that serve only to hinder corporate and personal wealth and autonomy -- forget the truths laid down by our Founders.

Government is not against the people: it is the people. The laws they make are not shackles: they are "those wise restraints that make men free." The Rand-y specter (be it Ayn or Paul) of an inhuman bureaucratic monolith in a gray trench coat coming for your job, your wallet, your independence: it's just that -- a specter. It's us, coming to us, saying that for our country to prosper together we need to build a road, to build a dam, to raise an army, to make sure that our elderly can afford to be taken care of, to make sure that our businesses play by the rules, to make sure that we can breathe the clean air, get Americans back to work, lessen our dependence on the resources of other nations. It's us.

Taxation without representation is abject tyranny. Contemplating armed revolt against the government at a time when tax burdens are at their lowest point in more than sixty years is abject stupidity. I'm all for voters of all political stripes enthusiastically ridding the beltway of politicians whom they feel are being irresponsible with our money, but let's be clear that the very notion of government spending is not irresponsible in and of itself. We all want a federal government that is sleek and unobtrusive -- even the liberal-est of the liberals. But big problems call for big solutions, and, yes, sometimes that means an American government big enough to rise to the challenges we now face together.