In defense of government, cont’d

IN DEFENSE OF GOVERNMENT, CONT’D…. President Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan today, and spent some talking about one of my favorite subjects: the role of government in 21st century America.

In the abstract, as we all know, one of the thematic goals of the Obama presidency is shifting the public’s understanding of and appreciation for government itself. The prevailing paradigm of the last 30 years has been unshakable: “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” This president has the unwelcome task of changing the way people perceive the role of collective action through their government.

And periodically — in his first State of the Union, at various public events — Obama will, with varying degrees of subtlety, remind the electorate that the government can be a productive, constructive role in advancing the country and empowering its people. The president’s audience in Ann Arbor heard some extended thoughts on this very subject.

“…American democracy has thrived because we have recognized the need for a government that, while limited, can still help us adapt to a changing world…. The democracy designed by Jefferson and the other founders was never intended to solve every problem with a new law or a new program. Having thrown off the tyranny of the British Empire, the first Americans were understandably skeptical of government. Ever since, we have held fast to the belief that government doesn’t have all the answers, and we have cherished and fiercely defended our individual freedom. That is a strand of our nation’s DNA.

“But the other strand is the belief that there are some things we can only do together, as one nation — and that our government must keep pace with the times. When America expanded from a few colonies to an entire continent, and we needed a way to reach the Pacific, our government helped build the railroads. When we transitioned from an economy based on farms to one based in factories, and workers needed new skills and training, our nation set up a system of public high schools. When the markets crashed during the Depression and people lost their life savings, our government put in place a set of rules and safeguards to make sure that such a crisis never happened again. And because our markets and financial system have evolved since then, we’re now putting in place new rules and safeguards to protect the American people.

“This notion hasn’t always been partisan. It was the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, who said that the role of government is to do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves. He would go on to begin that first intercontinental railroad and set up the first land-grant colleges. It was another Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, who said that ‘the object of government is the welfare of the people.’ He is remembered for using the power of government to break up monopolies, and establishing our National Park system. Democrat Lyndon Johnson announced the Great Society during a commencement here at Michigan, but it was the Republican president before him, Dwight Eisenhower, who launched the massive government undertaking known as the Interstate Highway System.”

It’s striking to think that some of the milestone achievements of Republican icons would be rejected as outrageous progressive abuses by much of today’s prominent conservative voices. I can almost imagine Teddy Roosevelt appearing at a town-hall meeting, with an unhinged activist demanding to know where in the Constitution it states the government has the authority to create public parks.

Obama added today:

“Of course, there have always been those who’ve opposed such efforts. They argue that government intervention is usually inefficient; that it restricts individual freedom and dampens individual initiative. And in certain instances, that’s been true. For many years, we had a welfare system that too often discouraged people from taking responsibility for their own upward mobility. At times, we’ve neglected the role that parents, rather than government, can play in cultivating a child’s education. Sometimes regulation fails, and sometimes its benefits do not justify its costs.

“But what troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad. One of my favorite signs from the health care debate was one that read ‘Keep Government Out Of My Medicare,’ which is essentially like saying ‘Keep Government Out Of My Government-Run Health Care.’ For when our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it conveniently ignores the fact in our democracy, government is us. We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders, change our laws, and shape our own destiny.

“Government is the police officers who are here protecting us and the service men and women who are defending us abroad. Government is the roads you drove in on and the speed limits that kept you safe. Government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them. Government is this extraordinary public university — a place that is doing life-saving research, catalyzing economic growth, and graduating students who will change the world around them in ways big and small.

“The truth is, the debate we’ve had for decades between more government and less government doesn’t really fit the times in which we live. We know that too much government can stifle competition, deprive us of choice, and burden us with debt. But we’ve also seen clearly the dangers of too little government — like when a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly led to the collapse of our entire economy.

“So what we should be asking is not whether we need a ‘big government’ or a ‘small government,’ but how we can create a smarter, better government. In an era of iPods and Tivo, where we have more choices than ever before, government shouldn’t try to dictate your lives. But it should give you the tools you need to succeed. Our government shouldn’t try to guarantee results, but it should guarantee a shot at opportunity for every American who’s willing to work hard.

I obviously don’t expect the president to emphasize this point in every speech, or in the context of every debate, but the more Obama defends the basic role of government, the better. Especially as we did ourselves out of a hole created in large part by the absence of government, the public’s appetite for state activism should be stronger.

Of course, we know it’s not. I often think about a post from March in which we talked about a woman in Texas battling breast cancer. She and her husband were unemployed, and deeply worried about the future. But she was adamantly against the Affordable Care Act, no matter how much it would benefit her family, because she feared government abuses and inefficiency. “Every government program,” the woman said, “none of them work very well.”

This exact same family was getting by on unemployment benefits (a government program), and is holding onto some health coverage through COBRA (another government program), which they could afford thanks to federal subsidies (through another government program).

But this woman, like too many Americans, had come to find conservative rhetoric so powerful, she was willing to oppose the very safety net her family needed, because the net would be provided by her own government — not realizing that she was already benefiting from the net already in place.

It’s precisely why the president’s remarks in defense of government need to be reinforced from time to time — the right’s hysterical attacks on the very notion of government action have warped public perceptions.

Americans need a reminder that when it comes to some key policy challenges, the only sensible solution is for the country to use the government as a tool to act in the public’s interest, taking steps businesses won’t take, and that individuals can’t take on their own.

In other words, more of this, please.