Who Needs the Government?

02/28/2011 04:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Hoyt Hilsman Author, journalist and former Congressional candidate

The raging debate between Democrats and Republicans over government spending and taxation touches on fundamental questions about the rationale for government, questions that go back as far as Plato's Republic. The biggest hue and cry is coming from the Tea Partiers, whose views range from traditional small government advocates to extreme libertarians. But the debate raises the question for all Americans -- "Who needs the government?"

Most of us would agree that we all need the government to provide basic services -- public safety, infrastructure and national defense. But even those basic services are fairly recent additions to the government's role. In the nineteenth century, for example, most fire departments were private, paid for by insurance companies. If you paid a premium to the insurance company, the fire department would put out a fire at your house. If you did not pay a premium, your house burned down. In 1883, in Riverside, California, a major commercial building burned down, but the city fathers refused to pay $500 for a municipal fire department, arguing there was no need for one. Finally, in 1887, after another disastrous fire, the city's first public fire department was established.

Times have changed, and virtually all Americans agree that government has a role to play in providing essential public services. The question then becomes, what is essential? Is it "essential" that we provide a social safety net for the old, the infirm, the disabled and the poor? If a building burns down in the middle of town, the consequences are obvious and it's clear something has to be done. But what about public health, education, the environment or infrastructure? Are those really essential? Many in the Tea Party believe that some or all of these are not essential public services, at least not in their current form. Even moderate Republicans are calling for large cutbacks in these services.

In an ideal world, we could sit down together and have an "adult" conversation about what public services we need and how much we should spend. Instead of having an abstract, ideological debate about the merits of taxation versus spending, we could develop a consensus, set priorities and find solutions. In that case, everyone would have to give up a little -- or even a lot. However, this is not an ideal world, and politics usually trumps adult conversations every time. Americans from all sides have vested interests in the outcome of this national conversation, often based on issues that transcend spending or taxation, with a greater emphasis on values (and emotions) than practical solutions.

Speaking of values, now would be a good time to examine more deeply our fundamental American values. If we can agree that liberty, justice and equality of opportunity are bedrock American values, what is the role of government in preserving our values? We have fought a revolution and civil war for these values, and the goal of those struggles was to establish and defend a government that would preserve those values. We did not fight for a bigger government or a smaller government, or even for higher or lower taxes (the Boston Tea Party, remember, was about representation, not just taxation). What we fought for was to protect our fundamental values.

So what role does government play in protecting those values? Above all, the government is the instrument of our democracy. It is the organization that the American people have created to represent and promote the values that we hold sacred. Unlike in many other countries, we have been given the right to determine the shape and direction of that government. Of course, there are lots of special interests and frustrating bureaucracies that are obstacles in our path, but ultimately, we have the power to decide. Perhaps more importantly, we have very few fundamental barriers to exercising that power. We don't have to belong to a particular religion or privileged group, and we don't have to be members of any party or organization. All we have to do is make our voices heard.

In many respects, the government is the embodiment of some of our highest aspirations as Americans. Rather than being a rowdy collection of individuals, or even a rough coalition of states, we look to the federal government, and to a lesser extent state and local governments, to embody a collective vision of America. In our highly individualistic and competitive society, we look to government to regulate individual actions and responsibilities for the sake of the greater good. No one else but the government -- not the corporation, or the church or even the family -- can protect the larger interests of our society.

As President Obama recently said, "We are the government." It makes no sense to be anti-government in the American context, unless you are opposed to the values that it represents. If, for example, you believe in state ownership of all private enterprises, you would probably oppose the government. Or, if you believe that the best government is no government at all, then you would also oppose our system. But, short of that, you really ought to be rooting for the best government we can muster.

That doesn't mean that the government shouldn't change and improve -- it should. It also doesn't mean that there is one, simple solution to complex problems. For example, solving the government deficit isn't just a matter of either raising taxes or cutting budgets. As every family knows, the key to financial solvency is the judicious balancing of income and expenditures -- which depends on the priorities that each family sets. And that bring us back to values. In these contentious and uncertain times, we have to keep our eyes on the prize -- our fundamental values of liberty, justice and equality of opportunity. We can disagree of the path to insuring those values, and the degree to which government plays a role in our lives. But, as Americans, we should never forget the enduring values that have made us a great nation and that bind us together.