Commentary

Less government or better government

Why does one need to write in defense of good government? Because government has been vilified for political expediency in recent years. Under these relentless attacks, government is portrayed as evil – something Grover Norquist wants to reduce “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Norquist is not an insignificant figure. He founded Americans for Tax Reform, and is a key strategist behind the attack on government. This assault is not a compassionate attempt to serve the public good. Norquist says, “Our goal is to inflict pain. It is not good enough to win; it has to be a painful and devastating defeat. … It is like when the king would take his opponent’s head and spike it on a pole for everyone to see.”

John Marty

I am speaking out in defense of good government, which includes criticism of bad, ineffective, and inappropriate government.

Inflicting pain on others does not further the values of democracy. Contrary to the public’s desire for civility, Norquist says, “We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals — and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship.” Here in Minnesota, and next door in Wisconsin, it is obvious how successful Norquist and his allies have been in that battle.

The need for infrastructure

Let’s step back from that. I want to speak in defense of good government. In Abraham Lincoln’s words, our government was instituted “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Government is not them. It is us. Government is not inherently good or evil; it is how people choose to govern themselves.

As society and the economy become more complex, we need government to create the infrastructure to establish justice and to promote the general welfare. In primitive societies, with smaller communities and simpler lives, government was also much smaller. Food and necessities were produced locally; labor was provided by family or neighbors. There was no Wall Street. No corporate boards made decisions affecting the lives of truly anonymous workers and consumers. There was no need for air traffic control or a pollution control agency.

In our increasingly complex society, we need to work together to give all children access to quality education, to ensure that products we buy are safe, to pay for roads and bridges and public safety, to protect the environment, and to help those who are sick and vulnerable and unable to fend for themselves.

It is through government that we can effectively address these needs. It is also, almost always, less expensive to do so collectively. It is far cheaper to pay for a clean public water supply than to have each household drill its own well, and test and purify its own water. Yet some politicians across the country have been signing Norquist’s No New Taxes pledge, which allows no exceptions, whether for growing needs, for emergencies, or natural disasters.

Under the anti-tax ideology, if children go hungry, that’s tough. If bridges collapse, too bad. After the 35W bridge collapse, Gov. Pawlenty supported a tax increase to fund bridge construction needs. (His spokesman explained, “Yes, it’s accurate to describe this as a breaking of the [no-tax] pledge,” because of the “extraordinary circumstances.”) However, when pressure from the anti-tax lobby became too strong, the governor backed away.

The need to invest

Meeting the needs of society can be expensive. In 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor did not come at a convenient time for the U.S. Our nation was still struggling to recover from the Great Depression, and the federal government had no financial capacity to fund World War II. Yet all Americans sacrificed. In addition to the unmatched human sacrifice on the battlefield, there was an incredible economic sacrifice that needed to be paid for with higher taxes. Americans understood the need to work collectively to stop the brutal fascism that was taking over the world. We pulled together to build a better future for the next generation.

This is not a defense of all government. No one in the Minnesota legislature has been more outspoken than I in criticizing inappropriate spending, such as for corporate subsidies. No one has been more outspoken in fighting against government intrusion into private lives and decisions about whom one can marry. No one has been more outspoken against the corruption of special interest money in politics and the need for government reform.

I am speaking out in defense of good government, which includes criticism of bad, ineffective, and inappropriate government. But it also requires defending that which government needs to do, even if it means higher taxes.

The people of Minnesota and our economy do better if we invest in early childhood education. We all benefit if everyone has access to preventive health care. We benefit if low-income workers have public transportation to get to their jobs and quality childcare for their children while they are at work. Failing to provide chemical dependency treatment to prisoners makes us less safe when they have served their time. Making college too expensive for students robs all of us of their potential.

The recent assault on government has been so brutal that there are times when few political leaders are willing to stand up and speak out. The rhetoric of Democrats from President Obama on down focuses on the need to cut spending (yes, some of that focus is on inappropriate spending), but it feeds on a frame that government is evil and less spending is better. A decade ago, there was only a handful of votes against the huge Minnesota income tax cuts that led to our current budget crisis.

Much of the growth in government comes, ironically, from our failure to invest the funds needed to address problems regarding health care, disability services, or child abuse investigations. If it requires more revenue to meet those needs, we should raise taxes rather than accept those cuts in service.

John Marty represents Minnesota Senate District 54. He lives in Roseville and is a member of Nativity Lutheran Church, ELCA, in Saint Anthony Village, Minnesota.

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