Politicalprof - On Government "Benefits"


Amongst all the noise this election cycle about who gets government benefits, who pays for them, and indeed the fact that almost everyone uses some government program or the other, one missing theme has been: what is government for?

This may seem like a ridiculous question, but I want to suggest that were we to consider it more carefully, many of our arguments about government might be cleared up. (Of course, what, then, would politicians, commentators and bloggers do?)

The Preamble to the US Constitution offers a useful place to start. It really identifies three main purposes for government: national security, domestic security, and the provision of collective benefits that citizens determine they desire but would struggle to achieve on their own. The Framers’ language is more, well, eighteenth-century than that, but that’s basically what it says.

The first of these, national security, is obvious: fairly or not, it’s usually true that if one cannot defend one’s borders from foreign forces, one’s community will almost always be absorbed by another. Likewise, the second, domestic security, is a necessity: if a government cannot protect the lives and properties of its citizens, it can hardly be called a government at all (visit Somalia if you need evidence to back this point up).

Notably, while those two expectations of government may not be that controversial in the abstract, they become considerably more so in the specific. How big a military, how many prisons, just how one ought to secure the citizens of a community: each of these issues and many more are subject to significant—and entirely legitimate—debate.

The third of the core purposes of government, the provision of collective goods paid for by citizens’ taxes and fees, is at the heart of contemporary debates about government. Some groups, libertarians and tea partyists among them, have decided that the government should provide few to no public services on the theory that: 1) government using taxes and fees to provide these services is a form of theft; and 2) the private sector is best able to provide these services cheaply and efficiently. In contrast, the six socialists who live in America believe the government ought to do more to level the playing field and ensure a floor of services under which no citizen could fall. Most everybody else thinks something in the middle.

But here’s the thing: most everybody benefits from goods and services that we have agreed to finance, whether through taxes, fees or interest payments on borrowed money. We drive on public roads and attend public schools. We live in a security regime that, while often onerous, has ensured the US has not been invaded in 200 years and that most streets—but not enough—are usually safe. The water is normally safe to drink and no one almost ever gets electrocuted when they flip on a light switch (which relays government-regulated power to your light bulb).

It’s all well and good to argue about what we think government ought to do and how it ought to do it. But don’t kid yourself. Most of us — not enough of us, but most of us — benefit from living in a basically safe and secure country. That’s true whether you’re in the 99%, the 47%, or the 1%.

A fact worth remembering … and protecting.

Courtesy of Politicalprof.

For more from Politicalprof, check out today’s Biology of Blog episode, featuring an interview with the blog’s author, Lane Crothers.