Government that fails to act is the problem.
Does our government create more problems than it solves? Famously skeptical of a large federal government and in favor of privatization, President Reagan campaigned on this very message–that “government is the problem” –enacting countless deregulatory measures throughout his presidency to reduce the powers of the federal government. While this message still resonates with many voters to this day, the sentiment is deeply flawed in its implication that the government is never to be trusted and that the private sector is inherently more efficient at fixing problems.
In reality, the deregulation that President Reagan campaigned for would only create future issues, and we’re now witnessing some of the worst effects of a government that has for too long chosen inaction over action on critical problems after leaving the private sector to “sort it out.” Climate change is one of these issues, and in recent weeks, wildfires have blazed across the Western U.S. states and Canada. In California in particular, nearly 450,000 acres have burned in the Dixie Fire, which severely impacted air quality and visibility across the Western half of the U.S. (New York Times) This is by no means the only wild weather event we’ve experienced this summer that appears to be a harbinger of climate change: extreme flooding in Southeast Michigan, brought about by heavy rains that flooded Detroit freeways, prompted a major disaster declaration last month. (Michigan Radio)
Unfortunately, the issue of climate change is just one of many alarming problems that could have been prevented or alleviated by government action. In what follows, we’ll explore the importance of active government and good policymaking and argue that government isn’t inherently problematic–rather, inactive, unresponsive government is.
What We Mean By “Good” Policymaking
Contrary to the message President Reagan campaigned on, small government is not necessarily better. In fact, a government, regardless of size, that fails to address the issues that cripple its citizens via effective policymaking is certainly worse. Indeed, government should champion progressive policies to effectively target social and environmental problems, such as poverty, healthcare inequalities, environmental degradation, and racial injustices, areas in which the private sector often falls short. So what does “good” policymaking look like?
Perhaps the most notable example of reactive and effective policy making is that of the New Deal in response to the Great Depression. Our “best…model for an American government that sets aside obeisance to unfettered capitalism and comes to the aid of its people,” the New Deal enacted “ambitious programs” that aided American workers, created new jobs as well as a safety net for the elderly, disabled, and unemployed, enshrined organized labor protections, and imposed new regulations on the banking sector. (New Yorker, The Nation) While it fell short on implementing some of President Franklin Roosevelt’s more ambitious aims like universal healthcare, the New Deal is to this day one of the most far-reaching and noteworthy packages of legislation that has aided the nation’s impoverished and helped American workers.
Later, President Lyndon Johnson expanded on these aims with the passage of the Social Security Amendments in 1965, which established Medicare and Medicaid. These programs were especially beneficial to the middle class and would pave the way for “reforms that increased health insurance coverage” and continue to be critical today in providing financial assistance to the elderly and disabled. (American Progress) While these are just a few of the examples of what “good” policymaking can look like, these far-reaching and important pieces of legislation have undoubtedly improved the lives of countless Americans and established a social safety net–albeit one that now needs to be strengthened–to assist our country’s most vulnerable citizens, something we have learned time and time again that the private sector is ill-equipped to do.
Climate Change & Beyond: The Failures of Passive Government
By contrast, we have also witnessed what happens when our government sits on the sidelines and fails to address critical issues, like the impending reality of climate change as well as wage stagnation, blaming its inaction on polarization and partisanship and placing the onus on individuals and the private sector to “sort it out” instead.
As the incidence of extreme weather events increases every year, we’re reminded of the impending damage climate change will bring about in coastal cities, drought-stricken regions of the West, and elsewhere–a reality that our government has failed to address with progressive policy change for nearly four decades. Recently, some of our worst fears about the reality of climate change were confirmed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest Climate Report: absent swift and sweeping reductions in global carbon emissions, climate change is here to stay. (The Atlantic)
While some state governments, including our own, have invested in green energy initiatives and committed to achieving carbon neutrality in a fixed amount time, the fossil fuel industry nevertheless constitutes “a powerful force acting to stop governments from making full use of [green] technologies,” and “in particular, oil and natural gas companies” are the culprits. (Bloomberg) Without further action from the government to curb the worst effects of climate change via investment in the clean energy sector and reigning in fossil fuel emissions–such as through a carbon tax on large corporations that emit them–we will continue on this grim path; and it is clear that responsible individuals and the private sector alone cannot change our trajectory.
The government has similarly idled on the issues of income inequality and wage stagnation. Despite the fact that average wages have remained stagnant for nearly 40 years, and the federal minimum wage is 28.6 percent less than it was worth in 1968, Congress failed to pass legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15/hour earlier this year. (Economic Policy Institute 1 and 2, The Hill) Largely due to the influence of businesses and wealthy individuals, who “generally receive more attention [from lawmakers] than…the poor and middle class,” the government is unlikely to adopt the proposed minimum wage increase this year, leaving millions of minimum-wage earning Americans out to dry as the burden of student debt and financial barriers to homeownership continue to increase. (The Hill)
We can acknowledge that, in some ways, our government is the problem–however, not in the way that this sentiment originally implied. Rather, government that fails to enact policy on the most critical of issues is the problem, such as how our government has failed to address climate change, crumbling infrastructure, healthcare inequities, and wage stagnation. In addition, government that caters to special interests and the wealthiest of Americans, while ignoring the demands of the middle and working classes, is the problem.
To remedy this, we can certainly start by pressuring our lawmakers to act in their constituents’ best interests, whether through contacting our representatives’ offices or attending a political protest. We can also continue to be informed about elections and vote for candidates that represent our values. But perhaps most importantly, we can remind others that government in itself is not the “problem;” a government that fails to act like one–due to inaction, polarization, and catering to special interests–is.