After decades of conservatives telling us that government is the root of all evil, it’s time to set the record straight and remind Americans of government’s real value.
The way to talk about the purpose and value of government and be persuasive is simply to tell the truth. This has been in short supply over the last generation. To the contrary, government has been demonized in much discourse. It has at least, to coin a new verb, been “skepticized.”
Trust in government now is very low. But trust in government has been falling on balance since the late 1960s and took an especially large hit in the 1970s. The nation hasn’t truly regained its confidence in it ever since. In fact, the nation has been vulnerable to mythology and misinformation that has seriously damaged America’s future.
There are many such myths, but the primary one is that any social program or any increase in government spending dampens economic growth. Liberal economists have contributed to this as well. Even MIT’s Paul Samuelson, the leading Keynesian of his day, argued that there was a trade-off between social programs and economic efficiency 60 years ago.
It is simply not true. For the genuine evidence, not the propaganda, see a book by Joel Slemrod and Jon Bakija called Taxing Ourselves, which shows the true impact of higher taxes on growth. More to the point, see Peter Lindert’s book, Growing Public, which argues that social programs often contribute to growth. There is certainly no evidence, doing cross-country comparisons, that they retard it.
Both Bakija and Lindert were at the Rediscovering Government launch conference program on March 28 in New York City, and this week we will have video of their contributions on our web site, RediscoveringGovernment.org. Lane Kenworthy, among many others who participated in the conference, also made an important point about how much people of low income in the U.S. and other rich nations depend on social programs.
This is a key issue in my mind, but there are many others regarding government. How jeopardized has true democracy been by the cost of elections and the power of lobbying? Is the deficit as dangerous as it is made to sound? Why do people like Medicare so much and in turn often hate government intrusion?
The true history of government should be better known. It regulated land sales in the early 1800s. It built the canals, the free and mandatory schools, the sanitation and water systems, the roads and bridges. It financed the railroads and subsidized the colleges. It did the most critical technical research in American history. It established maximum hour and child labor laws. It pays you for a while if you lose a job through no fault of your own.
In a series of essays this week, we will discuss how to make the true value of government better known to America. Let’s start with the truth.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.