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].
The conservative icon Barry Goldwater famously wrote that "Individual initiative made the desert bloom." But that's not quite right. Agriculture in the west only became possible in that semi-arid region because of dozens of federally-sponsored irrigation projects, beginning with the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. Taxpayer-supported water projects now irrigate over ten million acres of farmland in the West.
The Western pioneer remains a potent symbol of rugged American individualism. Many of those pioneering farm families, however, were the beneficiaries of a huge federally-sponsored land redistribution program. Beginning with the Homestead Act of 1862, the Federal government gave away land for free to anyone who filed a claim and promised to farm the land for five years. By 1934 the Federal government had given away 270 million acres of land to over 1.5 million homesteaders.
Corporations have capitalized (pun intended) on the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a remarkable assertion of national authority (and of judicial activism), in the 1880s the Supreme Court used this clause, which was originally intended to protect the rights of freedmen, to define corporations as "persons," guaranteeing them remarkable legal protections including the right to "free speech." Most recently, this has been interpreted to include unlimited campaign spending as decided by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case
Private pensions have been encouraged by public policy both directly and indirectly--through tax and labor law, targeted regulatory interventions, and the structure and reach of Social Security itself. Health care provision has traveled the same path--shaped by federal tax policy that subsidizes "private" health care benefits provided by employers.
Americans have become accustomed to convoluted banking and accounting. But New Deal legislation made everyday consumer banking predictable - and profitable. "3-6-3," the joke went: "Bankers pay 3 percent on deposits, charge 6 percent on loans, and hit the golf course by 3:00 p.m." The new legislation made banking safe, too: after Congress created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and then strengthened FDIC's regulatory power, bank runs and failures plummeted (from 4,000 in 1933 to sixty-one in 1934). All that changed during the 1970s and 1980s, when the federal government began permitting the kind of creativity in banking that once again made American banking as unpredictable and volatile as it had been before the Depression. Financial whiz-kids hatched incomprehensible schemes to slice and dice mortgages for resale, to speculate on their firms' securities, and to insure commercial bank holdings through credit-default swaps. "I didn't understand the retail market; I just wasn't close to it," former Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs executive Henry Paulson admitted when asked about the marketing of toxic mortgage assets.
Most Americans have bank accounts "Backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government," up to $250,000! Deposit insurance came about during the very depths of the Great Depression, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized that the public needed a guarantee to keep their money in banks, despite his misgivings about insuring deposits. The bill was passed, as FDR proclaimed in his first fireside chat, to protect "the confidence of the people," unquestionably "more important than currency, more important than gold." Deposit insurance became permanent just a few years later and was a lifeline to many Americans during the Great Recession, when hundreds of banks collapsed and fund managers had to spend $8.2 billion helping out depositors by November 2009.
During World War II, 40 percent of the 22 million men of military age were rejected for the draft as physically unfit. This was a major catalyst for national health reform legislation that addressed deficiencies in the supply of hospital facilities and trained medical and public health professionals, increased support for medical research to create the modern National Institutes for Health, and established the first government single-payer health program, the Emergency Maternity and Infant Care program, which covered the hospitalization costs for one in every six U.S. births in 1944.
The Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Centers for Disease Control originated as a response to the Cold War threat of biological, chemical, and nuclear warfare on U.S. soil. The EIS created a comprehensive system of surveillance of disease outbreaks that proved to be crucial to mounting a prompt and effective response to national health crises such as the 1955 Cutter polio vaccine contamination incident and the 1957 Asian flu pandemic, and has been continually refined to protect Americans from emergent threats including bubonic plague, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and avian flu.
In 1941, only one third of all births in the South took place in hospitals, while three quarters of births were in hospitals elsewhere in the nation. Southern mothers also died in childbirth at significantly higher rates than non-southern mothers, largely due to a lack of medical care. Federal hospital construction legislation passed in 1946 benefited the southern states most of all, and the proportion of nonwhite births in southern hospitals increased from 24 percent in 1945 to 74 percent in 1960, while the white proportion increased from 68 to 97 percent.
Even presidents skeptical of federal power believed that building transportation networks was an important duty of government. Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana to ensure American access to the Gulf of Mexico. Andrew Jackson spent heavily on transportation along the coasts and in federal territory not yet organized into states. And Herbert Hoover's postmaster general used air mail contracts to combine the nascent airlines into an oligopoly with a "logical map" of routes.
By 1947, just a year after the G.I. bill passed, veterans already made up nearly half of all college students; by 1950, 2.2 million of 14 million eligible veterans had chosen to enroll in postsecondary education. By 1964, G.I. Bill beneficiaries included 450,000 engineers, 360,000 teachers, 243,000 accountants, and 150,000 scientists.
In 1971, a year before Title IX passed, just 295,000 girls participated in high school sports, comprising only 7 per cent of high school athletes; by 2001, 2.8 million girls had joined their ranks, making up 41.5 per cent of the total number of athletes.
Federal stimulus funds in 2009 filled a nine percent school-funding shortfall in California, a 12 percent deficit in Florida, and a whopping 23 percent shortfall in Illinois. Already, federal stimulus-related projects have either created or saved almost 400,000 jobs for teachers, principals, school nurses, and other educational workers.