We pay taxes — income, property, sales — to the government. We vote for the people who hold public office at the local, state, and federal levels. What, then, should we expect in return?
In some circles, government is seen as a bad thing. However, it must play some part in our lives.
For example, perhaps that role is to protect us from other countries and threats across the world. A strong military would perform that task.
Maybe, though, the government can keep us safe from other dangers besides bad actors around the world. The current pandemic is an example. A strong state or federal entity can coordinate efforts that individuals, or even powerful companies, might not be able, or motivated, to do.
Does that also extend to other threats? Climate change? Dirty food or water? Guns?
Related: Listen to an episode of the Intellectual Roundtable Podcast, where we discuss the questions ‘Where does authority come from?’ and ‘What does your favorite music say about you?’
Whenever disputes between individuals arise, there needs to be some intermediate to resolve them. The legislative system serves as a way to codify this, and the courts allow for interpretations of those laws. Is this a valid governmental role?
There are many other tasks that the government oversees: education, land governance, roads and bridges, libraries, postal service, and on and on. Are there areas that the government currently manages that they shouldn’t, in your opinion? Conversely, are there roles it should have, but currently doesn’t?
If you like the government or not, it is true that in a democracy the government is a manifestation of the will of the people. In your mind, what do you want our civic institutions to do? What role should the government play in our lives?
Related questions: What are our responsibilities to others? Where does authority come from? What role does technology play in your life? How much power does an individual have?
6 thoughts on “What Role Should Government Play In Our Lives?”
This is a difficult question. I know plenty of people who resent government’s intrusion in our lives, like collecting taxes and enforcing regulations.
But I also know there are many services that government provides that we couldn’t live without — everything from garbage collection to public education (the pandemic has revealed just how much our society depends on public schools to function normally).
Personally, I think the government should be *more* involved, not less. I am certainly aware that corruption and abuse may be a result, but I see plenty of both the private sector as well.
It seems to me the answer to government corruption is not to shrink government, but to enact protections to curb that corruption.
Government is necessary, but should have limits. I think that the U.S. government in some ways is going beyond those limits to the extent that they may not be able do things properly that they should be doing. If you compare the government to a family unit, you could say that the leaders (parents) have definite responsibilities but they also must let all family members have things they are responsible for and become more skilled and responsible as they grow older. The leaders continue to direct things toward the good of all. If they do everything for the children, they will be spoiled so they never learn to do for themselves. Then the parents will become grandparents and have two more generations to take care of, and eventually they will become less able to keep up. Things start falling apart. If the parents refuse to give any control to the children and grandchildren, they may or perhaps must become dictatorial. In this analogy, I see civic public and private institutions as the “children”. The more capable they are, the more they share the load, the better for everyone.
Government is the only force able to counter the effects of private greed. Private greed, left unchecked, leads to extreme human suffering on an unlivable planet. Our choice is to elect a government that stands up to private greed—redistributing funds to ensure that all children have sufficient food, and that the food is safe to eat—or one that enables it.
I wrote the following years ago about the many ways that good government has helped me as well as a couple of the critiques of where we need a more activist government. I have edited this essay slightly to reflect the world we live in today:
I value good government and good government services provided on the local, state, and federal level. There are many times I’ve relied on government, and it was there. I am proud to help pay for it so it is also available for others and for me in the future — which as you will read will likely be later today.
The following is just a bit of how government has helped me become what I am today.
I attended public school and am glad I was taught everything from how to read to trigonometry to how to compete in cross country. I am thankful for Ms. Toy, Mrs. Spees, Principal Holte, Ms. Lemke, Coach Andy, and countless others who believed in me and taught me.
I am thankful for the school bus that picked me up each day. There was no way I could have walked the 9.5 miles it was to Arcadia Elementary or High School.
For a significant period of my childhood, our family relied on federally subsidized free- or reduced-priced lunches because we were too poor to afford nutritious meals all the time.
A number of winters we received fuel assistance to help heat our shoddy trailer home, because it was very cold, frost was collecting on our walls and floors, and my Dad’s job did not pay near a living wage.
College, despite my great grades, would have never been possible had it not been for Pell Grants and federally insured student loans. Or, for that matter, a public high school guidance counselor telling me I could achieve more than the 2-year business school I was considering as my only option.
While in college, I was constantly aware that the public university I went to was a state treasure. The liberal arts education I received from the University of Minnesota gave me a much deeper sense of how to be a helpfully critical citizen and how to navigate a constantly-changing world.
I once called the Minnesota Attorney General’s Consumer Hotline to ask about my rights and find out a vendor was almost going to rip me off. Government saved me a pretty penny that day. The advice was given for free.
I took the city bus for many years. It helped me get to school and work. While on the bus, I caught up on the world’s events and some times took up talking to the stranger sitting next to me.
I’ve camped in, run through, walked around, and canoed poorly in many Minnesota state parks. A couple of times a week, I walk my dog Luca around a city park. I really enjoy these things as communal resources that everyone can use.
Each day, I drive on government-subsidized and maintained roads. I sure don’t know who would keep our roads safe if it weren’t for government.
A team of firefighters once drove by as my car was stuck in a ditch. They stopped — six of them — and pushed me out. They drove off soon thereafter to return to the station. I had to do some research to find out what station that was, so I could thank them and their supervisor.
Sometimes I eat in restaurants that I know are periodically inspected for safety and cleanliness by local food inspectors. It’s nice to know there are regulations that keep me safe when I, as an individual, would have no way of personally guaranteeing that safety.
I am thankful for the public servants that run for public office and do their best to reconcile competing interests with limited public dollars. It warms my heart when I know that the taxes I pay help those in need, invest in our infrastructure, and help people achieve things they might never be able to do on their own.
It pains me that so many seem to hate government (e.g. its programs, its public servants, and politicians), but rely on many of the things government provides. It also pains me that some of these people are consumed with taking away the things other people get from government but think the things they receive are sacred cows.
I wish government was more active in advancing and enforcing civil rights. I yearn for a government that better addresses the basic needs for those who regularly go without or live in substandard situations. I think that Medicare for All isn’t too much to ask for, as healthcare should not be private good.
That said, I love Minneapolis and St. Paul; I love Minnesota; I love this country. Yes, I get angry about some of the things the governments of these places do … my anger usually results from someone’s desire to make government less available to those who need it most. But on the whole, government makes life better for me, my friends, my family, my neighbors, and the larger community.
There is so much I would have never of accomplished had it not been for the helping hand that government programs sometimes provide. There are so many things I rely on (and I bet you do too) that government does to keep you safe.
And the parks! The roads and bikeways! The educational systems! None of these would be possible (except for to the very wealthy) except by communities – local, state, and national – banding together and doing them together.
For many, many years I’ve had a decent paying job. I gladly pay taxes. In fact, sometimes I wish more was asked of me, especially when I hear about severe cuts in programs that helped me make it.
I am more than willing to pay, so I can continue to live in a city, state, and country I l
As one who is concerned about limiting government, I pretty much agree with you on the importance of the services of state and local governments. I am more concerned with the over-reach of the federal government, not because the services are not needed, but because of the inability to oversee them effectively and efficiently and the overgrowth of the bureaucracy making it very difficult to make corrections as needed. Also, in defending and praising government and listing all the services you appreciate, I wonder if you could likewise list all the things around you provided by business and private groups and individuals. When I tried that I found it an endless list.
Paul Wellstone told a story about someone (forgive me if I got this wrong) who asked a brain surgeon was his job the most difficult. He, the brain surgeon, replied that rocket science was more difficult, so the person went to a rocket scientist and asked him the same question. His answer? A politician.