In Our Opinion: The Power of Government

The following editorial ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazetteon November 8, 2007, and is run with the permission of the paper.


Douglas Amy, a political science professor at Mount Holyoke College, may sound like a voice in the wilderness when he extols the virtues of government, but his message is a good antidote to the cynicism that currently pervades American politics.

Amy believes that government can be a force for good, particularly when it comes to dealing with some of our more intractable problems, such as the lack of affordable health care, threats to the environment, and poverty.

"Government," he says, "is not some big scourge on society. It's the way we get together collectively to solve our problems."

There's been a tendency to view the government as a blunderbuss that lurches from crisis to crisis, recklessly spending taxpayer money without regard to results. To be sure, there's been no dearth of examples. In Massachusetts, the Big Dig has become a monument to government waste and political favoritism. Nationwide, we need only look south, to New Orleans, to recall the debacle that masqueraded as a federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

While a certain amount of skepticism toward government can be healthy, there's been a negative streak in the body politic that only fosters cynicism and apathy. It can be traced back to the 1980s when, during his first inaugural speech, President Ronald Reagan declared: "Government isn't the solution; it is the problem."

Yet, in many respects, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. By slashing funding for social programs and beginning a tilt toward privatization, Reagan began starving some of the programs of the funding they needed to operate efficiently. Yet, years later, we can see that privatization is not a cure-all either: Witness the calamity caused by independent security contractors in Iraq who are compensated far beyond what the average U.S. soldier would receive.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood the power of government as a force for good. His Works Progress Administration -- a massive capital improvement and employment program -- helped lift millions of Americans out of the depth of the Depression. Medicare operated efficiently for years until the Bush administration crafted a prescription program that has benefited the insurance companies more than senior citizens. Despite the financial challenges that face it down the road, Social Security would be a model of effective government if Congress and the White House would keep their hands off its trust fund.

Amy also provides a useful service in pointing to ways that the federal government affects the everyday lives of Americans, including: the purity of the water they drink, the safety of the food supply, the road and highway systems we rely on to get to work, even the federal reimbursements that may pay for the care of an elderly parent. They demonstrate what government can do when our elected representatives engage in serious business.

There are limits to how much power any government should accumulate. What's more, Americans have a unique streak of individualism that naturally resists the concept of government looking over their shoulders. Still, we do ourselves a disservice when we view the government as something apart from ourselves, something that will do harm before it ever does any good.

Amy's message about good government ought to be embraced. It should also serve as a clarion call for voters to educate themselves on the issues and elect the right people to office based on their qualifications--not just in state and federal elections, but in the kinds of municipal contests that drew voters to the polls across Massachusetts on Tuesday.

No organization will ever run perfectly, the government included. Yet, we will only doom ourselves to disappointment--and deprive ourselves of the opportunity to improve the lot of all Americans--if we accept the notion that we just can't do any better.

Related Links:

Government is

Doug Amy - Faculty Profile

MHC Prof's Web Site: Government Is Good!