Point of View

The fantasy of small government

As the population grows, as the economy gets larger, as technology escalates, as information proliferates, as financial instruments get more convoluted, as our foreign entanglements multiply, we cannot escape the fact that we must devote more resources pe

January 5, 2013 


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STANISLAV STASYUK — Getty Images/Hemera

Amid all the furor and fuming over the need for a balanced budget and the dangers of sliding down the fiscal slope, one incontestable fact must be acknowledged. We can never return to an era of smaller government.

Maintaining some semblance of structure and justice in today’s global turmoil irrefutably requires a larger commitment of government resources than it did a couple centuries ago.

As the population grows, as the economy gets larger, as technology escalates, as information proliferates, as financial instruments get more convoluted, as our foreign entanglements multiply, we cannot escape the fact that we must devote more resources per capita to keep the system running.

The larger any entity becomes, the more effort it takes to hold it together. Whether we are talking about residents in a city, drugs interacting in a person's body, financial schemes launched on Wall Street, automobiles traveling the highway system, media channels, alternative energy sources or anything else, the more complex any system becomes, the more oversight and control it takes to keep it from spinning apart.

As our culture grows increasingly complicated and convoluted, small-government solutions simply cannot do the job.

Environmental concerns. We must be ever more concerned about our deteriorating environment – pollution, resources depletion, global warming and climate change. The continuing push by business and industry to gut environment protections and standards are indicative of the free market mindset that favors short-term profits over long-term social planning.

Global involvements. Transportation and communication advances essentially have made provincial nationalistic policies impossibly simplistic. International economic entanglements cannot be undone. Humanitarian and medical needs demand international efforts. We must deal with imported toxic goods – pharmaceuticals, lead-painted toys and dangerous products in all sectors. Environmental concerns know no national boundaries. And global peacekeeping efforts must be acknowledged (think terrorism, financial scams, cyber-warfare, nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking).

Education. We have to deal with the very real information overload. Our educational system must handle increased responsibilities for health and nutrition, sexual issues, family deterioration and dozens of other social matters. While training engineers and scientists, we cannot neglect our intellectual commitment to education in civic responsibilities – the root of our democratic society. We must respond to the financial inequities of 14,000 independent school districts.

Law enforcement. To what extent can drug trafficking, computer fraud, crime syndicates, nationalized gang warfare and the like, be left to state and local police efforts?

Energy. We really are going to run out of fossil fuels one day. How can we best develop a rational renewable fuels policy without a national effort in research and infrastructure? Even before we use up all our oil, natural gas and coal, how are we to build the transmission lines, the oil and gas pipelines, the water aqueducts to handle our needs?

Transportation. How can we best guarantee air travel security, highway safety, trucking regulations, railroad policy, without a coordinated national overview?

Finances. How are we to handle the world of financial instruments created by Wall Street – zero-coupon bonds, debentures, computer-based split-second trading, futures contracts, margin calls, convertible bonds, leveraged buy-outs, subprime mortgages, high-risk derivatives, hedge funds, sovereign world funds, credit-derivatives market, credit default swaps, stepped certificates, collateralized debt obligations, auction-rate securities, closed-end options, naked short-selling, option ARMs, and numerous other esoteric financial schemes? This is not the free market envisioned by Adam Smith. Dare we trust oversight of this fantasy world up to the Wall Street operatives?

We simply cannot return to the halcyon agrarian culture of Jefferson and Madison. Our escalating technological and bureaucratic realties demand increasing government regulation and involvement – whether we like it or not. (And most of us don’t particularly like it.)

Then there are the other commitments that cannot be ignored, obligations that we have incurred but have failed to provide funding for: the burden of an overwhelming national debt that must be paid (over $16 trillion); the very real need to rebuild our deteriorating infrastructure (estimates run into the trillions of dollars to repair and replace our long-neglected roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, sewer systems and related physical environment); and the crushing impact that retiring baby boomers are going to have on Social Security and Medicare.

We cannot ignore the reality that as society becomes increasingly complex, it demands an expanding role of government. The free market libertarian ideal (“The government that governs least governs best”) is but a fantasy in today’s world. The sooner we accept this uncomfortable truth, the sooner we can face the uncomfortable job of raising revenues including, yes, increasing taxes to pay for our cultural infrastructure.

Donald N. Wood of Durham is professor emeritus of media studies at California State University, Northridge.

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