Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why do Americans fear government?

Last night I saw a news segment about one of the town-hall meetings around the United States in which citizens are voicing their concerns about health-care reform. One woman, her voice trembling with emotion, asked “Can you name one thing—one thing—that government has become involved in that has not grown wildly out of control and hopelessly inefficient?” I gather that her rhetorical question was mean to be an argument against government being involved in the health-care industry.

Within a couple of seconds of hearing the question, I was thinking of all the government agencies that have done excellent jobs of overseeing and performing tasks that private enterprise would have done much less efficiently and that have not grown wildly out of control. The first few that came to mind were government agencies that I know about because members of my family have worked for them: The United States Geological Survey, the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Health and Human Services. Then I thought of government agencies that have provided funds to scholarly, scientific and artistic endeavors that would not likely be funded by private enterprise: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation.

Within less than a minute I was able to think of about a dozen or so more national government agencies that routinely do excellent jobs without growing wildly out of control. And of course when I began to think of governmental agencies at the state, county and municipal level the number of exemplary government agencies began to fill me with a deep sense of gratitude for all the things that governments provide the citizens of the United States. So where, I began to wonder, does this fear of so-called “big government” come from?

When I begin to think of government ventures that really have grown wildly out of control and have swollen budgets for iefficiently doing services that we hardly need done at all, I also notice that it is these government enterprises that we hear about most often and that we encounter more often than we would like. The most wasteful big-government operation of all, of course, is the military, which gobbles up 43% of all monies gained through taxes. When people look back on American military ventures that have taken place since the end of the second world war, the only thing they can see are counterproductive operations that have wasted lives, destroyed property and depleted the treasury. If the military is the most visible arm of the American government, no wonder Americans are so distrustful of government.

Another branch of government that everyone who travels by air experiences is the Transportation Secuirty Administration, which makes sure that no grandmother boards an airplane with more than three ounces of skin lotion and that no child has a bomb concealed in his shoe. At enormous expense and irritation to the traveling public, this highly visible organization asks us to believe it is their work that has prevented further hijackings and bombings of aircraft. When Americans see how many obviously pointless measures are taken by government agencies in the name of airport security, no wonder they are wary of more big government.

Is there any reason to believe that a government-regulated medical insurance program or a government-regulated pharmaceutical industry would be as inefficient and wasteful as the military or the Department of Homeland Security, or as invasive as the FBI? No. It has not proven to be so in other industrialized nations. Why assume that a national health service would be more like the US military than like the US Park Service or the Department of Housing an Urban Development?

Is there any reason to believe that a government-regulated medical insurance program or a government-regulated pharmaceutical industry would be as inefficient and wasteful as for-profit health insurance companies and for-profit health maintenance organizations (HMO)? Again, the answer is suggested by the experience of people living in countries that have government-managed health-care systems. They provide much better care and a fraction of the cost of what is available in the United States in our market-driven system.

The American fear of big government is not entirely irrational. There are very expensive government agencies that return very little of value to society; the military is the most obvious of these. But it is irrational to fear all government. There are also scores of governmental agencies that none of us would want to live without: the National Guard, various police forces, fire-fighting agencies, departments that build and maintain roads and highways and bridges and airports. Who would prefer having to travel on privately own turnpikes and tollways instead of on the federally maintained system of interstate highways and all the state highways? Who would prefer to live in a society in which every merchant had his own definition of what a pound of weight or a yard of length or a minute of time is, as opposed to a society with a federally financed Bureau of Standards? Who would like to live in a country without a national postal service?

Who would like to live in a country that has a health system in which the people most in need of care cannot afford to pay for it, and in which insurance agencies have no incentive at all to provide coverage to anyone who might make claims that could reduce the dividends or shareholders or diminish the bonuses paid to already highly paid executives? I guess that question has an answer. Sarah Palin seems to be one such person. But why? And why are so many Americans so ready to be persuaded by her careless rhetoric than by a careful study of what would actually be of benefit to them?

Care to study the situation a little more carefully? One place to begin is at the CNN site on health care.