The other night a conservative friend asserted more or less baldly that the government has no legitimate function other than national defense. When I said, “The government has many legitimate functions,” my friend snapped, “Name two!”
I can name a lot more than two. For starters, how about inspecting meat-packing plants? You and I are not in a position to go into those plants and make sure that rat droppings are not getting into our sausage. So we authorize a government agency to do the inspections.
I’m not saying the Bush administration’s inspectors are actually doing a credible job of it. I’m just saying, that’s what government is for — to do the things for us that we can’t reasonably do as individuals. To provide for the common good.
How about traffic laws? I asked my friend, “Do you really want to live in a town where there are no speed limits and no traffic lights? Where anybody can drive as fast as they like or up over the sidewalk?”
He said, “I’ll have to think about that.” With a little smirk on his face, as if to say, “Oh, you’re being irrational, but it would take too long to explain it to you. The free market would insure that safe drivers triumphed over reckless ones.” Or perhaps, “Oh, dear, I’m trapped, but I don’t dare admit I’m wrong.”
Come to think of it, the government operates the court system and the prisons, doesn’t it? Does my friend think they should be dismantled? What would we do with murderers? And how would we catch the murderers, if there were no police?
If I remember my high-school history correctly, in the 19th century private fire companies were the norm. If your home caught on fire, several fire companies might arrive on the scene. You would then have to negotiate a deal with one of them before they would start the pump and put out the fire. If you didn’t have your checkbook handy, they would let the house burn down. On occasion the rival companies were too busy fighting with one another even to bid for the job. Again, the house burned down.
Americans quite wisely decided that Free Enterprise wasn’t producing the desired results. So today we have publicly funded fire houses. Socialism, in other words. And it works.
There aren’t so many homes burning down as in the old days. Partly that’s because electric lights replaced candles, kerosene lanterns, and gas lamps — but it’s also because government inspectors (bureaucrats, in other words) have to sign off on the construction of your home before the builder is allowed to sell it to you. If there were no bureaucrats, faulty wiring would start a lot of fires.
How about regulating financial institutions? In the 19th century runs on banks were distressingly common: Depositors’ savings could disappear overnight. Today we have the FDIC, a government agency, which offers you some protection both from panic and from embezzlement.
And how about truth in advertising? Should corporations be allowed to make false claims for their products, so as to sell worthless or harmful items to unsuspecting consumers? You and I as individuals don’t have the resources to be able to investigate the claims made in the dozens of ads we see every day. We rely on government regulations to protect us from liars, thieves, and scoundrels.
At the moment the liars, thieves, and scoundrels are running the government, but that’s a slightly different problem.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I like the government we have. It’s full of incompetence. Our leaders routinely lie to us. But the solution is not to get rid of government!