By Ron Yezzi
— Why do we need so much government? Put simply, we increasingly find there are needed public goods that only government can provide. Put more weightily, we live in a largely urban, technological society where commitment to democratic principles requires recognition that both the actions and inactions of private entities, groups, and individuals very often have significant local, national, and global consequences for others.
In 1790, the U.S. had 3.9 million people and was 94.9 percent rural; now, we have 310 million, who are 80 percent urban. Back then, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison could envision very limited government with an agrarian populace of relatively self-sufficient, small farmers. But today, we have a huge, interdependent urban population reliant on numerous technological vehicles, appliances, devices, structures, etc.
Even most farming has become a capital-intensive major industry replacing the labor-intensive small family farms of the past. Our society now relies on a complex infrastructure that cannot exist simply through the private choices of individuals; it requires considerable governmental intervention.
After some 30 years of anti-government rhetoric and lowered taxes, serious deterioration of this complex infrastructure has occurred. Here are the grades given by the American Society of Civil Engineers Report Card: Aviation (D), Bridges (C), Dams (D), Drinking Water (D-), Energy (or Electrical Power Grid) (D+), Hazardous Waste (D), Inland Waterways (D-), Levees (D-), Public Parks and Recreation (C-), Rail (C-), Roads (D-), Schools (D), Solid Waste (C+), Transit (D), Waste Water (D-).
In its 2009 Report, the society estimated the shortfall in needed investment over only the next five years at $1.176 trillion. Yet even President Obama’s recent proposal for just $50 billion in additional infrastructure investment faces opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The engineers though are talking merely about physical facilities. Infrastructure includes much more: like a well-functioning financial system, law enforcement, education, health care, job skills, a living wage, adequate housing, scientific knowledge and research, a safety net for people in trouble.
Without all this infrastructure, a 21st century urban, technological society cannot function well and prosper. Moreover, without it, the fundamental democratic goal of a level playing field of equal opportunity becomes ever more remote and our commitment to democracy for all becomes fraudulent.
Recognizing these infrastructure needs as public goods entails government spending supported by taxes. When anti-government politicians demand small government and back that demand with continual attempts to cut government spending and lower taxes, they may think they’re solving a problem. But washing your hands of a problem is not the same as solving it. The problem is still there; and it is very likely to get worse.
Cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits or repealing The Affordable Care Act doesn’t give people more financial security or greater access to needed health care; instead it puts them at greater risk. The infrastructure needs will not go away by neglect; we must either meet them or let our society deteriorate.
While there’s always conflict in trying to strike a proper balance in the competition between private goods and public goods, let’s recognize there’s also a way of bringing them together. When we talk about our strong tendency to pursue self-interest, let’s differentiate between selfishness and enlightened self-interest.
When it comes to infrastructure as a public good, as a matter of enlightened self-interest, we should recognize that this public good serves our pursuit of private goods in the long run. For example, the sacrifices associated with payroll taxes, required by government for Social Security and Medicare, assist each one of us in avoiding poverty and dealing with illness in our old age.
Our nation faces serious fiscal problems. But we should not be panicked into spending and benefit cuts when they undermine infrastructure needs. Entitlement benefits like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid are not wasteful pork barrel projects. The civil engineers’ concerns are not pulp fiction.
There’s always a need for improvement and correction in government programs. Social Security’s long term problems are largely solvable by raising the cap on wages (currently, $113,700 for 2013) subject to tax. Implementation of structures in the Affordable Care Act can hold down increasing costs in Medicare and in health care generally. Once the economy recovers more, tax rates can be raised to Clinton administration levels to sustain deficit reduction and infrastructure investment. Let’s subject proposed spending and benefit cuts to careful consideration, not panicky submission.
Nothing stated here warrants buzz words like “slavery,” “confiscation,” “socialism,” or “nanny state.” It’s just sensible thinking in the contemporary world.
Ron Yezzi, now emeritus professor of philosophy at Minnesota State University, taught courses in social and political philosophy. He lives in Mankato. Sources for this article can be found in the online version at www.mankatofreepress.com
(1) 1790 figures: http://www.allcountries.org/uscensus/37_urban_and_rural_population_and_by.html
(2) Current population figures: http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/2010_census/cb12-50.html
(3) ASCE report card: http://www.asce.org/reportcard/
(4) ASCE estimated investment shortfall: http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/report-cards
(5) Obama infrastructure investment proposal: http://www.aashtojournal.org/Pages/120712SpendingPlan.aspx