Why We Need Governments

Earthquake and Tsunami damage-Fukushima Dai Ic...

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With the rise of the Tea Party movement, there has been a concurrent rise in the popularity of libertarianism. This political and economic view advocates radically reducing the role of government in society. Libertarians tend to advocate for the privatization of many things currently handled by the government.

Ever since Reagan, America has been flirting with privatization and deregulation. It is a popular move among those who perceive the government to be inherently wasteful, inefficient and corrupt. While things are going along reasonably well in society, it is tempting to think, “we don’t really need the government to be doing ‘x’.” On the other hand, times of crisis and extraordinary circumstances give us the opportunity to consider and appreciate the valuable role our governments play.

Consider the recent earthquake near Japan. Not only did it create a tsunami that has devastated many communities, but it has also endangered nuclear power plants. Some may imagine that private industry would do a better job than any government in rescuing victims and combating the emergency of the at-risk nuclear power plants. But our experience tells us otherwise. The governments of the world are the ones who come to the rescue in these situations. Although many corporations have interests in seeing the problem solved, they are simply not equipped to effect a large scale rescue and recovery. We look to our governments to play those roles and to ensure that corporations fulfill their responsibilities in crises.

Emergency rescue and management is not the only role that our government plays. It also provides infrastructure for commerce and daily living. It provides a safety net for citizens; and this provision not only protects the least in our society but it also protects the rest of us from massive unrest. It provides education for us.

My goal is not to itemize every valuable function of government; it is to contemplate and remember just how critical such things are for civilized society. Yes, there are inherent challenges in making sure that our government functions well, but when we advocate for the elimination of those functions, we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to be coming together to work toward improving the way our government performs critical functions rather than self-inflicting wounds in a quest to eliminate those critical functions.

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  • Jim Wheeler  On March 16, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Quite right, John. I surely agree that government has many legitimate functions in any modern society, which by definition means a society that is specialized and interdependent. National defense and safety would be at the top of the list. I don’t think even Rand Paul wants to scrap the armed forces.

    The problem, as I have argued in my own posts, is where to draw the line between government and private functions. Take education for example, which you list as a government function. In my opinion government has completely failed at that.

    Then of course there is health care, an area which must be of special interest to your profession because of its moral implications. Through the legislation known as EMTALA the government has ventured into the field of ethics by forcing the healthcare industry to treat people regardless of their ability to pay. (EMTALA states that Medicare payments will be denied unless the industry complies.) You might say this is proper and moral, but there is a big problem with it, i.e., how to pay for such public generosity. The system is going broke.

  • jwhester  On March 16, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    I would be curious to learn about a test case society that has abolished public education and seen benefits (beyond their rich getting richer by not having to fund it).

    Our government has “completely failed” at educating America? By what standard do we deserve this verdict?

    “The system is going broke” is a very broad and misleading description of what is going on. If deficits mean we’re going broke, then we’ve been “going broke” for a century. To me that phrase implies imminent peril, and the only imminent peril I see on the horizon comes from a group of so-called “conservative” politicians who might decide to default on paying our debts. If they follow that course, it would be a self-inflicted wound.

  • Jim Wheeler  On March 16, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    1. I don’t actually advocate abolishing “public” education, just returning it to the community level on a competitive basis, similar to what is occurring in New York at a charter school. CBS’s 60 Minutes had a segment on it last Sunday – you should be able to google it. This would remove schools from the one-size-fits-all process that exists now.
    2. The overall graduation rate in the US is hovering around only 75%. But many of those who do “graduate” lack basic skills. You will find that most colleges now provide remedial basic English and math courses for this reason. Many of my posts have dealt with this.
    3. I have relatives who work in the finance part of the hospital industry and I can assure you that hospitals have deep and serious financial problems. EMTALA has only been around since the ’80’s and the imminent retirement and aging of the baby boomers have accelerated the problem. The cultural obesity problem has piled on too. Trust me, the world you have known is changing even as we speak.

  • jwhester  On March 16, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    1 – I have misunderstood your posts about public education. I thought you meant to abolish public schools.

    2 – People toss around all sorts of statistics to show how bad schools are, and yet I’m always suspicious of simple numbers trying to portray something as complex as school performance. You pick graduation rates. According to http://ftp.iza.org/dp3216.pdf, graduation rates between 1946 & 1982 fluctuated between 77% and 83%. I’m not sure that 75% represents failure in that context. Plus, we all know that schools are more inclusive then they used to be, so I would expect some decline based on that alone. Furthermore, I would have to see data that demonstrates that non-government type schools do better in order to embrace your suggestion as a solution to this “problem”. Four-year for-profit colleges, such as the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, and DeVry University, have graduation rates that average only around 20 percent(http://www.american.com/archive/2010/april/how-bad-are-our-graduation-rates).

  • Jim Wheeler  On March 16, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    2. I found a reference online that analyzes various official data about graduation rates and its conclusions are consistent with what I have found elsewhere. It is dated in May, 2008, and says in part:

    In an NBER Working Paper published in 2007[7], we demonstrate why such different conclusions have been reached in previous studies. We use cleaner data, better methods, and a wide variety of data sources to estimate U.S. graduation rates. When comparable measures are used on comparable samples, a consensus can be reached across all data sources. After adjusting for multiple sources of bias and differences in sample construction, we establish that: 1) the U.S. high school graduation rate peaked at around 80 percent in the late 1960s and then declined by 4-5 percentage points; 2) the actual high school graduation rate is substantially lower than the 88 percent estimate; 3) about 65 percent of blacks and Hispanics leave school with a high school diploma, and minority graduation rates are still substantially below the rates for non-Hispanic whites.

    Here is the Link to this source:


    However, bad as this sounds I suspect it is even worse. When I read the “honor rolls” published in our newspaper, both for the local high school and the State college here, the lists take up most of a page with fine print. In contrast, when I graduated high school in 1955 the honor roll was limited to the top 10%. There is a great deal of evidence that the schools are greatly inflating grades because to do otherwise makes unionized teachers look bad.

    I think it is well known that private schools out-perform public ones, but as you say, there are indeed many variables, most importantly socio-economic ones. Involvement of parents is an important one. Whether a good teacher can make up for that remains to be seen, but what we have so far demands change, IMO.

    The 60 Minutes segment is a good one and gives me hope. It is too early to see any improvement in test scores since the school, which is in a poor district, has only been open for a year and a half. If you care to watch it, I will provide the link below. (I apologize that there is about a one-minute commercial.)


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