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Is Government Necessary?

August 12th, 2012

Part of an analysis of Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” false controversy:

Jefferson, whom Democrats claim as the progenitor of their party and whom they celebrate with annual “Jefferson-Jackson Dinners,” was perfectly clear. The people of the United States created the government for one purpose only: to secure their rights. That is, the people, their possessions and their God-given rights existed prior to the state, which the people created to serve them.

With his Roanoke speech, Obama turned Jefferson on his head. In Obama’s formulation, government is not a tool for the people’s use, but the very foundation upon which all of American prosperity is built. Government is not dependent upon the people; the people are dependent upon the government.

Aside from the question of whether the author’s interpretations of the founders’ intentions are correct, the real question here is, can we say that Obama’s analysis is true? Do we depend on the government for being who we are?

The answer is easy: of course we do. I am tempted to add the biting comment, “Duh.”

We would be a completely different nation had we followed limited intentions as to the role of government. The fact is, we have grown, evolved, and become much more than was first established or envisioned. Had we not, we would not be the world power we are today, and we would not have the society we have today.

Historical romanticism is good and all, but you cannot base modern governance upon an ideal of returning to the principles of the role of government which may or may not have been an intended ultimate limit back when we were a fledgling agrarian society in a completely different age where human rights were delegated to a privileged few.

We should also not be fooled by the idea that this is about principles. Those espousing severe cutbacks in government programs are not doing so out of love for historical virtue. It is a more visceral reaction based upon avarice and bias. All the good that government does and has done is either dismissed, taken for granted, or subsumed into accomplishments by agents other than government. The cries for cutbacks come primarily from a desire to funnel money to the sector from which the cries originate while cutting as much as possible the burden of those doing the crying.

As a result, we see not so much reason and support as we do rewriting and obfuscation.

The writer of the article does essentially that. He first dismisses Obama’s idea that the middle class owes much of its existence to the the federal government by throwing up the straw man that Obama’s argument rests upon the supposition that the “middle class” at the time of the revolution would have to have been created, or allowed to form, by King George. Then he dismisses the entire argument about infrastructure by bizarrely arguing that this was the people acting, and not the government acting, defining the difference as being that the American people had tight control over how far the government would go in such endeavors. In short, the key to his argument seems to be based upon redefining things so that he’s right.

This has nothing to do with the argument being made publicly today, including the response to Obama’s statement: that government should not be, nor should ever have been as big as it is or as involved in advancing the general welfare of our nation. Building the nation should be up to private enterprise, as should health care, pensions, schools, security, and most everything else. And if you build a business, it’s all you and the government never did anything to help you–instead it only hindered you. Because we all know that government can never actually create any jobs, and when it tries to help, only horrific disaster ensues.

The question, then, goes back to that fundamental idea which the writer proposed, or more specifically, to the idea being forwarded by conservatives today: that the sole purpose of government is “to secure our rights” and anything beyond that is irrelevant to our achievements, or has actually held us back.

To consider this, you have to ask, exactly how does government secure our rights?

In the minimalist sense, government should do nothing more than is absolutely necessary to see that our rights are preserved. This would require a very small government, defending our borders and doing minimal policing inside them. No foreign wars would be prosecuted; no special services or assistance would be rendered to the people; no involvement in the economy would be performed. The government would make sure we’re not molested from without and do the bare minimum to preserve order within, and otherwise try to be as invisible as possible to the people. No huge projects, no safety nets, no redistribution of wealth. No trying to make the people better, just maintain the status quo and leave the rest up to society without the government sticking its nose in. No forced integration, no affirmative action, no government condoning of things like gay marriage.

Think over our history and how this would have affected our development as a country. Would we be who we are today without that?

Hell, no. We’d be a completely different society, and not a better one. We’d still be capitalist, but with income inequality even more severe than it is now. We would have become a plutocracy far beyond what we see today, with a manufacturing economy spreading from the north based on slave wages, and an agrarian economy from the south based on slave labor. Slavery would have lasted far longer, perhaps even into the present, with civil rights probably still only a dream. Public education would have been for-pay and only for those with wealth, as would be any kind of substantial medical care.

Despite being wealth- and production-centered, American industry and business would not have grown as it did. There would have been no government push for infrastructure. The rail system would have been minimal, interstate highways never built. Electrical systems would not have grown beyond sparse usage. Everything that our government has spent a great deal of money on in terms of infrastructure would have only been built as far as it was economically viable for private business–in short, not nearly as comprehensively as we have today. This would have saved money for businesses in the short run, but stunted their growth terribly in the long run. Computer technology was primarily funded by government spending, even as far back as the 19th century; that industry would have been greatly delayed, and infrastructure like the Internet never built. Ironically, it has not been the people bleeding the rich and the businesses for welfare checks, it has been industry calling for taxpayer money to build infrastructure too expensive for them to build themselves.

The author of the article suggests otherwise, and the argument could be made that building a national infrastructure is vital to preserving the rights of the people. (Ironically, these same conservatives are trying to stop infrastructure spending.) The problem with that argument is that if you take the idea of “preserving the rights of the people” as far as doing things like building infrastructure (acting positively to improve the society the people live in) then you essentially have the government we have today–in fact, you actually have a far more socialist government than we have today. How is providing financial security and good health to the populace not preserving their rights while building an infrastructure is? Really what the author is saying is, “We’ll stick to the absolutist principle except for stuff we like.” Sorry, but no–this is a situation where you cannot be “a little bit pregnant.” Either government works to preserve the rights of the people actively, or it doesn’t. Anything else is not principle, but instead is cherry-picking. Either we stick to the barest principles of the founders or we expand beyond it. You can’t establish a principle and then pick and choose when to violate it and still say the principle is sacrosanct to suit your needs. Sticking to the principle would have meant no government building of infrastructure, instead leaving it to private industry. And the fact is, we have decided as a society to act in the people’s interest.

Minimalists would have furthermore only protected imminent threats to our borders, but would not have participated in conflicts overseas. Even the Monroe Doctrine might not have passed. America would not have expanded its influence overseas, and would have sat out the first two world wars, figuring that we were not threatened because it would be too costly for European and Asian powers to bring war to American shores. America would never have become a world leader, and its ability to extend trade beyond its own shores would be in grave doubt.

I could go on, but you get the idea. All of this and far, far more serves as the foundation for the America we all know and want to have. It is all based on a strong central government which has grown well beyond simply minimally maintaining the rights of citizens–something which, when the Constitution was drafted, was limited mostly to wealthy white male land owners in any case.

What the government became, and what conservatives are trying to deconstruct, is a government which acts as an advocate for the people. If industry pollutes, the government stops them from harming the people. If a group is deprived of its rights by a bigoted majority, the government protects the rights of the people, not the ability of the majority to persecute. If the people are forced through desperate poverty to work for ruinous wages in harmful conditions, the government becomes their advocates. But the government does more than just that; it has tried to create a society where, as in a family, no one gets left behind to die in the street. It intervenes so the elderly are not forced to sleep under bridges in winter because some rich bastard stole their pension funds; so the poor are not made to starve in a land of plenty; so people can expect decent medical care without having to pay a king’s ransom because an industry holds their very lives as hostage.

Conservatives hate this. To them, it means that they are paying money for some freeloading bum to live in the lap of luxury with washing machines and big-screen TVs. They see a stark dichotomy with them doing all the work and making all the progress while half the nation sits on their ass without paying a dime in taxes, smoking dope and buying booze with food stamps, acting as parasites on the teat of big government. Reagan’s mythical welfare queen, now on steroids and writ large across an entire class.

Conservatives hate this straw-man moocher. You heard the crowds at the debates, not cheering, but shouting in outraged triumph at the idea of letting a poor schmuck die cold and alone in the streets instead of making them participate in paying for health care that would save the man’s life. You heard the crowds bused in to disrupt town hall meetings: I’ve got my Medicare, don’t you dare tax me to pay for health care for the poor. This is what they mean when they say they want “their country back.” It is what this all really comes down to: not a return to the founders’ glorious principles, but instead, “I want the benefits of government for me, not for those other bums.” Its just like the vote-suppression movements: “this country is for me; I deserve it and you’re a no-good parasite; you can go to hell!” They see others as being selfish when in fact it is them.

Obama was perfectly correct, and those who think government should never have grown beyond its infancy are indulging in a pipe dream. We are, in fact, not just dependent on each other within our own borders, we are dependent upon the world as a whole. Contrary to the fantasy world some libertarians dream of, you cannot have even a fraction of the wealth and prosperity we have enjoyed without also requiring exactly the things that these people wish never existed. Anyone who thinks they built a business and did it “completely” on their own is sadly and selfishly mistaken. Anyone who believes they would be better off without government is a fool.

The fact is, were the “drownable in a bathtub” government to exist, these people would not have a fraction of the things they presume have appeared because of their own individual efforts or the independent might of free markets. They are prosperous and believe they owe no one else for that prosperity.

Reality is very much distant from that presumption.

  1. Troy
    August 12th, 2012 at 13:32 | #1

    this is kinda the direction the conservatives want to push the discussion, us having to waste our time defend the last ~200 years of progress instead of talking about WTF we need to do now.

    This is just bullshit; the nation had this discussion 3 times — the original agrarian decentralism vs. federal-power of the Hamilton era (Hamilton won and the Erie Canal was built), the Civil War of states rights vs. federal power (decentralists lost again) and the Populist/Progressive era of ca 1900-1940 which cemented federal power (decentralists were swept into the dustbin of history, seemingly).

    The true economic history of this country is that we basically gave away the natural wealth to the first or richest takers — timber, gold, iron, oil, land, EM spectrum usage — all allowed to become monopolized and monetized by the wealthy.

    That’s how the “Old Money” East Coast Establishment got that way, along with banking and high finance shenanigans, and this real-world wealth disparity is still a major source of income flow from the 99% to the 1% — so much of middle class incomes are paying for land, energy, and credit.

    We should just ignore these people and make our own arguments about what needs to be done now — let them attack our vision instead of wasting our time and effort working through their bullshit fairytale ideology

  2. August 12th, 2012 at 21:03 | #2

    Perhaps the government is necessary for the country to be an imperialistic moloch it has become. Unfortunately the government and its bureaucracy has become an unwieldy and wasteful moloch itself and that’s what has to go away.

    Government one tenth the size of today and one tenth of the number of articles of law would be more than enough to govern the country. Now it’s an awful waste that won’t survive the decline in natural resources we are about to face. And as all molochs this one too will fracture and split into smaller units.

  3. Troy
    August 12th, 2012 at 21:09 | #3

    Leszek, that’s just rightwing bullshit. Big on generalities, absent in specifics.

    The standards of living — and AAA credit ratings — of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Germany utterly disprove every jot of your above jingoistic small-government fabulist crap.

    yes, we need a much smaller military posture and expense, but that’s not what the small-government people here want to cut.


    Not. At. All.

    Grow a brain, moran.

  4. Troy
    August 12th, 2012 at 21:17 | #4
  5. Troy
    August 12th, 2012 at 22:04 | #6

    “The complex historical processes that brought thirteen diverse colonies under a single federal system, furtthermore, left a great deal of power in the hands of the states. Very little of that power is used these days”

    blah blah blah. Just more federalist society bullshit.

    The idea that this nation is 50 hermetically-sealed states died 150+ years ago with the development of the railroads and telegraph. Motor vehicles, airplanes, and broadcast media sealed the deal.

    Interstate commerce demands we all get on the same page wrt human rights and social welfare policy.

    I am an American, not a Californian, even though I was born in that state and have only lived there, other than a summer in MD and most of the 1990s in Tokyo.

  6. Luis
    August 12th, 2012 at 23:29 | #7

    yes, we need a much smaller military posture and expense, but that’s not what the small-government people here want to cut.
    This is a key point. Liberals agree that we can balance the budget and we can do with a lot of cuts. We just don’t agree on the same things. Scaling overseas US military presence and cutting back general unnecessary defense expenditures are a big thing, but as you point out, right-wingers will not allow this. Bureaucracy has to be handled properly, government streamlined, and perhaps severely overhauled. Neither party has the cajones for that, or so it would seem.

    Conservatives’ budget-cutting ideas are to scale back Medicare and Social Security. The problem is, these programs are much more dependable and efficient than private-sector solutions on the large scale and actually save money. Calling them part of the federal budget is not wholly accurate, as they really *should* be separate. Call it the “Health and Pension Funds” and make it clear that far from being an expenditure, it is a savings relative to the less visible cost that would be paid were it handled privately. Cut Medicare and Social Security, it will cost the people and the nation more, and at the same time leave millions out in the cold.

    This is where government is a good: it does things that are impossible otherwise. Private industry would never have created the space program, the Internet, or the Interstate Highway System on their own, and they would have developed technologies like computers and nuclear research at a relative snail’s pace. Private industry is good at creating better smartphones and more effective boner pills. But for the big stuff, it has to be government.

    Government is also vital for fairness; we assume that everyone gets a fair start, and education is one of those givens. It is not, of course, because it is not done federally–but it should be. Children’s health is another. I could go on, but you see my point.

    There are simply two competing ideologies. Liberals want government to do what it does best to benefit the nation as a whole and to act as an advocate for the people. Conservatives want the government to serve the raw pursuit of wealth with little or no mind toward equality or fairness. Liberals look down the long road, knowing that investing in things like infrastructure and education, and taking actions like stimulus in a poor economy and paying down the debt when we are flush will pay off decades in the future; conservatives are buried in the forest of the present, looking for the instant fix, the get-rich-quick schemes, the tax cuts and regulation deconstruction, totally ignoring the damage they cause for the future.

    The way conservatives want it, government IS a scary thing. The way liberals practice it, government is far from perfect, but it is an overall good, and works for the prosperity of everyone, creating a rising tide that lifts all boats.

  7. matthew
    August 13th, 2012 at 01:08 | #8

    I am merely a bystander in this whole thing. I do not consider the usa my home, my country, my anything anymore. I have spent 18 years in Japan. Own a house, a business, employ japanese citizens, pay japanese taxes, have birthed and buried, and will rightfully claim my citizenship in the near future.

    Be that as it may, I do have a masters in public administration and a BA in American studies. So i find it all fascinating.

    But the country I left 18 years ago is unrecognisable to me. I have no idea where it is headed and this election offers no more insight. My best guess is that whomever wins, the spiral will continue. After all, Obama had both houses, a giant mandate, people screaming for change, when he started and look where the usa is now.

  8. Troy
    August 13th, 2012 at 02:30 | #9

    After all, Obama had both houses, a giant mandate, people screaming for change, when he started and look where the usa is now.

    This is a key misunderstanding. There may have been 60 votes in the Democratic Senate caucus several weeks in 2009, but in no way did Obama control *all* of those votes.


    breaks out the logistics, but the larger failure is thinking all Senate democrats are liberals. That’s not the case — Ben Nelson and other red state Senators are/were pretty far from liberal normally.

    And as I like saying, the chair of the Senate Finance committee, Baucus from Montana, entered politics in the early 1970s, while Obama was still in gradeschool.

    Obama himself was only elected to the Senate in 2004! He was a total nobody 10 years ago and that lack of institutional oomph did him no favors in 2009.

    The Founding Fathers set this system of checks and balances up, and it gates change, at least change the rich and powerful don’t want to see.

    Had it been possible for the 2009 Congress to pass bills only through the Pelosi-led House, things would be much, much different in 2010.

    Whether or not Republicans would have retaken the House in 2010 is an interesting question. I think so, since the blow-up of the Bush Economy in 2008-2009 was so immense that there was no way for government to put the pieces back together in just a year-plus.


    is a picture of the response.

    Blue is monthly new jobs, and red is government spending + consumer credit take on.

    We could have done more in 2010, but the system didn’t want to be accused of doing too much — causing 1970s inflation — so did not do anything.

    Plus there was the fear of being labeled “borrow & spend Democrats” in 2010 since government intervention wasn’t going to be able to do much before the 2010 election.

    I have spent 18 years in Japan

    Having arrived in Japan in the mid-1990s, you had the opportunity to view a similar train wreck really.

    Japanese are still paying way too much for rice, yet domestic farmers can’t compete with the global price for rice (here in California, at Costco I can get a 50lb bag of Calrose for $20, that’s ¥70/kg, less than half what growers receive from JA for their rice).


    for an interesting article on that.

    Then there’s Japan’s quadrillion yen debt. Technically 80% of everyone’s savings, pension, and insurance contributions are part of that debt, so to pay it back, taxes are going to have to be raised if spending isn’t cut.

    Just watching the 5% rise in the consumption tax wind through Nagatacho is ugly enough, and that’s just a 10% solution to the problem of financial shortfall, and is probably going to cause more harm than good anyway.

    Having lived on the internet for the past 10 years, I consider myself relatively well informed for a person who doesn’t know anything really, and it scares me that I can’t tell which nation is more screwed, Japan or the US.

    The US is not in such bad shape as appearances. We have a politics problem, basically the 1% have bought off the 5% to propagate bullshit about this being a bootstrap nation, when the reality is the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer here due to systemic extraction of rents — in housing, natural resources, and medical care — plus the $600B/yr trade deficit ripping $6000 per household out of the paycheck economy each year.

    Funny how Matthew timed his comparison to the early 1990s — I found this graph yesterday:


    that shows things have in fact got materially worse since that time.

  9. Tim Kane
    August 13th, 2012 at 04:40 | #10

    The assault on government comes, mostly (in the form of funding) from Corporations – that what’s sustains the assault.

    Nothing happens in politics without money (patronage). This is a cardinal fact.

    The antipathy towards government is well settled in the bones of many Americans, usually coming from the ignorant masses – who don’t want to engage in the intellectual heft necessary to understand the entire thing. This is a failure of civic education in our education system. But if you read The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, you’ll see where perhaps the most ignorant character in the hole book runs on about the government (“you call this a government…”). Later on Twain crosses the other side of the street on the issue (“Ain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And aint that a big enough majority in any town?)

    Both those concepts come together in the assault on government. But it would not be sustained if not for Corporations.

    For larger publicly held corporations, say greater than $500 million in revenues, which is common enough, the only entity that is bigger than them, that they have to fear from, is the Government.

    There’s a bit of irony in there: corporations were created by legislatures, and now created, corporations want to consume, dominate and control – if not destroy – the very entity that created them. There is not one corporation out there that does not want to socialize its cost and privatize its profits.

    The capital fact is: wealth concentrates. Corporations facilitate that. Concentrated wealth, in turn, destroys societies, nations, empires and civilizations. The first mega theme responsibility of government is, then, is to keep wealth from becoming too concentrated. Inevitably, amongst other things, that means controlling corporations.

    Big money then has an alignment with big-ignorance (masses) in its assault upon government. As progressives have been pointing out, that will get you somalia – where they are pretty free to carry guns, among other things, as well.

  10. Troy
    August 13th, 2012 at 07:27 | #11

    The assault on government comes, mostly (in the form of funding) from Corporations – that what’s sustains the assault.

    Speaking of which, how do you like this chart:


    say greater than $500 million in revenues, which is common enough, the only entity that is bigger than them, that they have to fear from

    they also have to fear a bigger corporation moving in on them.

    One of my favorite capitalists, Phineas Banning, got steamrolled by Southern Pacific back in the day.


  11. Matthew
    August 13th, 2012 at 11:53 | #12

    The title of the OP is “is gov necessary” Luis focused exclusively on the USA.

    My point was more about where I am vs. where I was. For better or worse I am throwing my lot in with Japan. I can only speak to my own situation and experiences and those tell me I am much happier living here.

    My pleasure or displeasure in politics seems more an exercise in blood pressure manipulation than anything else.

  12. Troy
    August 13th, 2012 at 14:25 | #13

    ^ yeah, I keep telling Luis to avoid the politics.

    You were in Japan like me and Luis before the internet came.

    It was SO great being unplugged from the world like that.

    For 1992-94 I was forced to read US news magazines at work, and bought the occasional MDN or JT, but for most of 1995 I didn’t even have that input, having changed jobs out of eikaiwa into computer stuff.

    Then work got hooked up to the internet in late ’95 and I got plugged back in.

    Luis has this great shot of the Okutama area:


    I only went up there twice, first time was — Oct 10 1992 (company activity on the holiday) and then later staying at a friend’s place — and it was kinda nice.


    says it’s only 90 minutes from Shinjuku. Well, the shuten at least.

    Lots of Japan looks just like that I guess, especially out by you, Shikoku, and Kyushu.

    Takes rain to make greenery, LOL.

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