by Mike Silverman
It is difficult for a liberal to neatly describe the 'role of government.' Liberalism, by its intellectual nature and history does not lend itself to easy extremes where the government's role is readily discernable: solely to enforce contracts, or on the other hand to own and distribute all wealth. Unfortunately as a liberal, the answers are never as pat as they are for the conservative or the communist. "No government!" and "Total government!" are easy to chant. But it is difficult for the liberal to chant, "Some government here, a little there,free market here, mild regulation there!" It doesn't quite fit on a bumper sticker.
Since it is impossible to neatly describe the liberal role of government, let me do so messily: government exists to maintain an environment where individuals and society as a whole can prosper, all while operating in a legal framework limiting its power and protecting the rights of the individual. These are contradictory goals sometimes; maintaining good government is a delicate balancing act.
Before I go any further, I want to make clear that when I refer to "government" I am referring to it in general terms, and am not making a distinction between federal, state, or local government. For example, I am not interested if education is a role for the feds or the states, but rather if government should be involved in education at all. Federalism is a discussion for another day.
On a practical level, government's role is do the things that, because of their huge scope and society-wide impact cannot be achieved by any other means. Example of this would be the defense of the nation, the protection of the environment, regulating trade, providing a legal system, and the like. It is logical that government should perform these action, otherwise they would not be done.
On a second level, the government has a role in providing for the basic health and safety of people in our society. Public health regulations are one way of doing this. Food and water purity laws are another. In addition, regulating consumer products is a legitimate role of government. You cannot sell childrens' clothing that is flammable, and you must recall unsafe automobiles. Municipal governments provide fire protection, police, sanitation and other such services. These services and regulations fall under the idea of enhancing the welfare of society as a whole. The government, due to its nature as being elected by, and representing the whole of the American citizenry can and should be involved here. By providing these services, the government is maintaining an environment where the individual can achieve success, and the society as a whole can remain stable and safe.
Some type of public education ought to be provided by the government. As a government by the people, we depend on citizens being educated about the world in which they live in. A stable and prosperous society depends on having an educated work force, and civic society depends on having its citizens taught civic values. In addition, the public treasures of a society's culture ought to be available for all. Thus, government should maintain parks, museums, and other cultural artifacts.
Government also has a legitimate role in taking on tasks which benefit everyone but are unprofitable for private industry. Research into basic science would be an obvious example of this, as well as various and sundry entities like the Weather Service and the Geological Survey. The government also has a role as a regulator, examples include the many "alphabet soup" agencies of the government like the FAA, the SEC, the EPA and the like.
Some might say that this is way too much government involvement in the marketplace. It is not. The government doesn't tell you what car to drive, what cola to drink, or what computer to use. However, it can make a law that the car you drive must have an airbag, the cola you drink cannot contain untested chemicals, and your computer cannot cause radio interference. The government's role in the market is to set ground rules and stand back, except to enforce those rules. To use a sports metaphor, the government is like a referee in a football game. The ref can't change the outcome of the game, or make a weak team triumph over a strong one, but he can prevent one team from cheating or playing unfairly.
The government should not be involved in the redistribution of wealth, but should rather help protect the social environment that makes wealth possible. No one becomes a millionaire in a vacuum. A stable society, with government doing as ours does is the best society for entrepreneurship and a booming economy. The proof is in the pudding: the United States is the richest country in the world, and the most competitive.
The liberal notion of government and the economy is a significant contrast to conservatives, who would have no regulation or involvement whatsoever. Perhaps affected by some historical amnesia, they forget that 100 years ago, when there was no government involvement or regulation that children worked 18 hours a day in sweatshops, giant monopolistic trusts controlled entire markets, people were sold rotted meat, and cities such as Chicago and Pittsburg were dark at noon due to the unfiltered soot of their factories. In some countries, conditions such as these would have led to revolution, but in the United States, progressive governmental reforms paved the way for near-universal growth and prosperity. We shouldn't forget this. It is because we liberals constructively criticize and improve the free market that some people hate us so. After all, if one worships capitalism as a god, any amount of critique is heresy!
Concerning personal issues, liberals believe in very limited government, unlike conservatives, who generally favor a large, intrusive government with regard to these matters. It is not the government's business to approve or disapprove of who you decide to fall in love with, what you read, what you watch on TV, or what you do on the Internet. The government should not be involved in religion. Jefferson had it correct when he advocated a wall between Church and State. Citizens have the right to worship and think as they please, but no right to impose their beliefs on others. It debases both the Church and the State when they get involved in each other's business.
I would be remiss if I do not recognize that there is a always a danger that a government can become oppressive and tyrannical. Government's natural instinct is to grow, and with growth can come calcification, and repression. It is the greatest challenge of citizens to recognize when this is happening and remedy it. There are too many sacred cows in government, which is why we still have peanut subsidies! To allow government to do good is to remain eternally vigilant.
To prevent tyranny the government must operate under some heavy restrictions: the government must be by and for the people, and answerable to them and it must operate within a legal framework. A free and vigorous press is necessary to shine the light of truth on the government. The government must be by the people. No non-democratic government, no matter how benign the motives can survive long without becoming a tyranny. The government must operate in a legal framework, the Constitution. Some rights cannot be infringed upon no matter what popular opinion or government desire might be. Finally, an independent and non-political judiciary must be allowed to keep watch on and if necessary overrule government heavy-handedness.
The government cannot solve every problem, and it should not try. What it can do is make some things better. Since World War II, the government has spent most of your money on three things: defense, social security, and medicare. In return, we won the Cold War, cut the rate of elderly poverty to almost nothing, and give our aged the best health care in the world. Government of and for the people can do good. Never forget that.