The government can be a real problem. We’ve all had to stand in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. We’ve all gotten fed up with stupid bureaucrats, red tape, and incompetence. It is easy to criticize the government, to see the government as the source of all problems.
The government of the United States, as governments go, is not the nightmare that it sometimes seems. It isn’t only a train wreck. For nightmare governments, we have to look at dictatorships like the Third Reich or the Soviet Union. Those disasters can’t even be put in the same sentence with the U.S. government; in fact, they shouldn’t be put on the same page or in the same book—or shelf, or library—to carry the metaphor to an extreme.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that the best government governs least of all. Henry David Thoreau was wrong to say that the best government governs not at all. Benjamin Franklin wrote that, if all men were angels, we’d have no need of government. They aren’t, so we need to have a government. Anarchy is a very bad idea. In the real world, a complete lack of regulation leads to disasters.
Self-government has turned out to be a fine way of doing things, with the government hobbled and limited by the division of powers (within the federal government and between states and within states), making human nature work to our advantage by making corruption and untrammeled self-interest more difficult, by creating incentive for compromise and preventing anyone from aggrandizing too much power to himself or herself. We need to remember that our government is run by human beings, with all the benefits and flaws and limitations that are inherent in all human beings. Some are good people, some not so much. But as you look at your own work place, the people you know, the members of your clubs and churches, which sort of people do you see more of? The percentages of people in the government who are evil, whether elected officials or government employees in the bureaucracy or elsewhere, are probably no greater than what you’ll find in any other part of life. Bureaucratic red tape is not something found only within government offices.
Personally, I have found that most of the government employees I come in contact with are just ordinary people trying to do their jobs as best they can, sometimes very difficult and unpleasant jobs handling awful situations and awful people (think social workers, police officers, fire fighters, paramedics, and soldiers, especially).
There are many things in our daily lives that we take for granted that if it weren’t for the government, they likely would never exist.
For instance, our medium of exchange for everything we buy and sell—our money—is regulated and manufactured by our government. The roads upon which we drive were built and are maintained by the government, whether state or local. That we can drive anywhere in the United States that we might want, say take a trip from Maine to California, is thanks to the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly referred to as the Interstate Highway System. It was named after Eisenhower because he was the president who championed its formation. As of 2006 the Interstate Highway System consists of 46,876 miles of highways. Ninety percent of the cost of building and maintaining them is paid by the federal government, the rest by the states who own, build and operate them. It is the largest public works project in history. The distribution of virtually all goods and services involves the interstate system at some point.
Our police departments and fire departments are all government run agencies, paid through our taxes. We have universal education thanks to the government. Obviously our military is provided by the government, to protect us from external threats. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the United States Department of Defense, has been responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military—but many of the technologies they have developed have changed the world as a whole. For instance, the internet was originally developed by DARPA, but today the internet connects the world, provides millions of jobs and billions of dollars in commerce.
The global positioning satellite system (GPS), a U.S. space-based global navigation system provides reliable positioning, navigation, and timing services worldwide in all weather, day or night, anywhere on or near the Earth. It has become a widely used aid to navigation, for mapping, land surveying, commerce, science, and tracking and surveillance. Ground, air, and maritime operations worldwide depend upon it. Disaster relief and emergency services use GPS every day. Banking, mobile phone operations, and even the control of power grids are facilitated by GPS. And yet, the GPS system was developed and is maintained by the United States government, specifically the U.S. military.
The government controls the broadcast system, making sure that radio and television signals don’t conflict with one another. The government controls the movements of aircraft in the sky to make sure they don’t run into each other. It maintains the weather satellites that warn us of hurricanes and tornados. It is in charge of making sure that your water is clean, your food is pure, and your medicines actually work and won’t hurt you. It sets the standards for weights and measures. It maintains libraries and museums. It keeps the signs and signals working on the roads and sees to it that the snow is plowed away.
While the government doesn’t—and shouldn’t—do everything, it does a great deal that actually improves our lives every day.