In his inaugural address in 1981, President Ronald Reagan told Americans: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." With those words, Reagan summarized the rhetoric of decades of libertarian thought, and galvanized a new generation of anti-government activists and politicians.
Reagan was a great politician, and as a slogan, it was a great line. Unfortunately, Reagan got his history wrong.
The "big government" that he and his conservative followers railed against was not a recent creation at all. Since the very founding of the nation, Americans have used the power and reach of the Federal government to foster any number of important national projects.
Beginning in the 19th century, the Federal government helped create a national communication system which enabled the citizenry to have access to ideas and information. It fostered the development of national transportation systems which have made the movement of goods and people possible.
Likewise, the Federal government has promoted education at all levels as the way Americans can achieve equality of opportunity, and has made it possible for the arts and culture to reach places far removed from major metropolitan areas.
And the Federal government has played a central role in expanding the very definition of who can enjoy the fruits of American citizenship.
The anti-government sentiment that Reagan crystallized has created a strange patriotism, in which to love our country, we must hate the governments we elect. Abraham Lincoln understood the matter more profoundly when he told the mourners at Gettysburg that we are a government "of the people, by the people, for the people." Our federal government is nothing more and nothing less than a collective reflection of ourselves.
The programs and policies we have pursued through the Federal government haven't always proven effective, or efficient, or even just. In that sense, the Federal government represents us as a people, sometimes at our best, sometimes at our worst. But to a remarkable degree, the actions of the Federal government have succeeded in doing what they were intended to do. In that sense, the America we enjoy today would be inconceivable without the active role of "big government."
So before you go to your next tea party to denounce the role of government in American life, try to imagine an America without the actions of the Federal government: where the safety of food is not regulated, where contracts may or may not be enforceable, where education is inaccessible to many and where the roads never get paved. It isn't a pretty place.
Steven Conn is the author of "To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government" [Oxford University Press, $19.95].