What is the role of government?


When Barack Obama was elected president, he stressed the history-making election victory was "not the change we seek but the opportunity to make that change." Being elected, it turns out, is only half the battle.

Once elected, officials must legislate and then it's up to the institutions of government to implement policy.

The role of government and its ability to make a difference in people's daily lives is not a question the progressive or democratic movement can take lightly. This question was at the heart of the health care reform battle.

Government is not a classless concept. Under capitalism, monopoly corporations dominate government policy and its institutions. U.S. capitalism has developed to such a stage that corporations and finance capital and government are fully integrated into the state. Marxists call it state-monopoly capitalism.

At the level of postal service, sanitation, water, fire, policy and emergency response - the question is not whether government or not. (Although there are battles of privatization and budget cuts.) But on issues big and small, the question is government for whom - Wall Street and multinational corporations or the people?

For 30 years the extreme right wing and Republicans have been doing every thing in their power to dismantle the part of government that addresses people's needs, and protects them from the worst corporate exploitation and discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation.

Grover Norquist, co-author of the Republican "Contract with America" famously said, "My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

The Republicans carried out a strategy over the past 30 years of deliberately running up massive deficits to bankrupt government and force massive cuts in social spending and the elimination of social programs. The Tea Party movement and its ""Contract For America" is a logical extension of this.

At the same time Wall Street, and the Republican ultra right were obliterating corporate regulation and turning government into an instrument for unrestrained exploitation.

Even while the Republicans were calling for an end to big government, they were enriching the military corporations with exploding military budgets, subsidizing corporate profits, aiding outsourcing, bolstering government intrusion into privacy, wiretapping and stomping on basic constitutional rights.

We are entering a new era of potentially widespread reform, with a president who has a different attitude toward the role of government. It's complicated because the Obama administration reflects the coalition that elected him and there are pressures from all directions - powerful sections of monopoly capital vies with a labor-led mass people's coalition and movements to seek advantage.

Government is an arena of the class struggle. Whenever government actually serves the interests of people it is the result of bitterly fought battles. This is true at all levels, from federal government to local school councils.

The broad labor-led democratic movements will have to win power at neighborhood, city, state and federal levels to transform government to favor the multi-racial, multi-national people's interests. Those of us living in Chicago can attest to that. The election of Harold Washington as mayor initiated a brief era of unprecedented reform in city government that is being felt to this day.

One of the biggest hurdles in the health care reform fight was whether people had confidence government could administer health care. With the victory the battle now shifts to implementation.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administers the programs, have been without an administrator since October 2006. Obama is appointing Dr. Donald Berwick, a professor of pediatrics and health care policy at Harvard medical School, renowned for his efforts to improve the quality and efficiency of health care.

The health care law's implementation, plus the battle for the role of government, are issues in the fight to extend reform to the public option, Medicare buy-in or a single-payer system and so the current reform must succeed.

People are often of two minds when it comes to government. They appreciate social services and any protections from corporate exploitation, racial or gender discrimination. But people's faith in government has eroded in the face of the constant anti-government ultra-right ideological barrage, and the actions of the state itself. A recent Pew poll found a majority agreed the government is "so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens."

Ineffective -- and repressive -- government also erodes confidence. The flood of big money into elections and lobbying, waste and corruption also turns off people. People become cynical when incompetent right wing ideologues are placed in positions of authority ruin and loot departments. The most notorious example is FEMA under "Heck-of-a-job" Brownie, who oversaw the disaster in New Orleans.And when government is repressive -- from Supreme Court decisions that take the side of corporations to political prisoners and witchhunts to police brutality and trampling on constitutional rights --those actions also erode confidence.

If we are to embark on an era of reform, the role of government and its ability to effectively serve the interests of the people will be at the heart of the battle.

Photo: People celebrate the election of Barack Obama at the White House. Kevglobal/CC

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  • what is the role of government in peace building

    Posted by ochaya gerald, 04/20/2011 10:54am (5 years ago)

  • It's hard to believe how many times I keep reading "corporate interests" on this blog. First of all, most corporate donors gave to the DNC and Democratic candidates in the past elections, while the majority of donations to the RNC and Republican candidates were under $50 and came from private citizens.

    But I don't understand what everyone has against corporations. They are the ones who provide jobs, insurance, and general prosperity. If they were taxed less, not more, there would be more jobs. The welfare rolls would go down organically--assuming people who've been infantilized their whole lives through government "care" were willing to take jobs.

    I know people resent the major bonuses some execs get--and they're huge, no doubt. I don't think the problem is that Smedley Smith does get a bonus--I think the problem is that someone else doesn't. No matter how many jobs and benefits packages Smedley's work created--or managed not to lose. No matter how many foundations they funded, schools they donated to, paid internships they provided, humanitarian missions they funded... they are richer than me, so they are bad.

    Grow up, people.

    Posted by KC, 05/17/2010 1:22am (6 years ago)

  • This era of reform" has not gone far enough, and I doubt the corporate interests and politicians of both parties will allow it to continue.

    Posted by detectivetom, 04/12/2010 7:34pm (6 years ago)

  • I came here from Reddit, and this is what I have to say:

    Tthe writer seems to be confused as to the purpose of raising a question. He raises a question, and he should answer with his own opinion. Instead, he gives all the reasons why he thinks his opponent's opinions are wrong. Since he doesn't take a position, it is very hard to defend such a position, and thus, being left with only one alternative (his opponent's), then that alternative is the only possible winner.

    Because of this failure, I will, thus, advance my own opinion of what the role of government should be:

    First, I will start with a purpose for government. Why do we need a government? Well, society cannot exist without a set of social agreements and understandings that allow for peaceful interactions between society's members (individuals). This "social contract" is the basis for a legal system. Because all contracts will, eventually, produce disputes between the participants, it is important to have an executor that enforces the contract and resolves this disputes. Thus, the members of society come together to create a government that serves as an executor and moderator for society. Sophisticated societies also avail themselves of government to create and modify laws, and modern societies divide these three roles (executor, creator of laws, and moderator) into three powers or branches of government: "The Executive", incarnated in the US in the Office of the President, "The Legislative", incarnated in the US in the Congress of the United States, and "The Judicial", which is incarnated in the US Justice System, headed by the Supreme Court.

    Educated people learn this in high school. Most people need to be reminded of this fact often, unfortunately.

    So, if the purpose of government is to have an orderly place where society can reach social contracts, express them in law, enforce these laws, and moderate disputes through the justice system, then it is to follow that the role of government should be based in the philosophical principles on which a society is founded. This means that, yes, the role of government is, strictly, to create laws, enforce them and rule on them, but these laws that they should create, and the manner that they should enforce and rule on, are determined by society's principles and values.

    In the United States, these principles and values are liberal, and are ennumerated in the Declaration of Independence: "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Any law created in the US that is incompatible with these principles, is incompatible with the US. The fight of the "tea party", the "moral majority" and other traitors that have hijacked the Republican Party and other Conservative Groups is to overthrow the nation's original principles and replace them with religious principles of a Christian disguise (I was going to say "nature", but some of the principles these groups advance are not very "christian", in fact). They will do this using any tactic available to them, including deceit (in the form of claiming, falsely, that the Founders of the US were Christian, when in fact, the most influential of them were agnostic or deists), or even by erasing history (like the Texas School Board that has erased Thomas Jefferson, the most liberal and most influential of the Founding Fathers, and author of the country's Independence, and replaced him with a Church figure).

    So, what should the role of government be? It should be to create laws that are of a liberal nature, that is, that advance the people's life, liberty and their pursuit of happiness, and that they enforce and rule on these laws in a manner that maximizes their freedom.

    Maximizes their freedom. This is a phrase that I would like to have people remember often.

    It used to be that the right and left of the US fought over how was the best way to "maximize freedom". The right would argue that lack of regulation "maximized freedom", while the left, embodied in the ideals of FDR would argue (in my opinion, more correctly), that people weren't born in an equal playing field, and that "maximizing freedom" meant bringing equality to the playing field. Any thinking person would recognize that, indeed, this is the philosophy that makes the most sense.

    People born in poverty are not very likely to be able to pay for an education, to pay for a doctor, to be exposed to different ideas, or ideals, to be challenged beyond the basic survival capacities of humanity, or to be treated with respect. The same goes for certain minorities, particularly in the US, if only because discrimination and racism equates certain races with poverty in many settings. Thus, the purpose of a liberal government shouldn't be to destroy regulations, but to create opportunity. To be sure, I recognize that the freedoms of the rich may be curtailed by some of these regulations, and that their freedom is as valuable as anyone else's. However, because the freedom of the rich is as valuable as the freedom of the poor, I see nothing wrong in imposing taxes and regulations that balloons the freedoms of the poor to the same level as those of the rich. Specially in a world were money is power, a truth that will remain truth no matter the economic system the nation chooses to adopt.

    The tragedy of this 21st Century America is that the right has realized that they cannot win this argument. If people look for ways to be more free, then the way of FDR, of Truman, of Kennedy, of Carter and of Obama is the way to go. Progressive liberalism is what made the 20th Century be known as "The American Century", because it maximized the freedom of all of its citizens, regardless of race, gender or social condition, and thus enabled their creativity to maximize the nation's wealth and influence. Logic would follow that continuing in a progressively liberal path should create even more wealth and prosperity, not to mention freedom, for society.

    This is why the right is changing the argument. They are no longer fighting for a way to be "more free". They are fighting for a way to be "more moral", or "more right". This is why the neo-conservative argument isn't about freedom but about "patriotism" or "god". It is a dangerous argument to be made, because it is one that stands against the identity of the United States, and one that should be exposed for what it is. The argument of the neo-conservative movement isn't about the "role of government" but about the "purpose of society".

    The Founding Fathers believed that the purpose of society should be liberal and the government should reflect this purpose in its actions and roles. The neo-cons stand against this philosophy. This is why they are the wrong choice. The liberal choice is the American choice, and the only choice that, truly, maximizes freedom.

    Posted by HariSeldon, 04/10/2010 3:30am (6 years ago)

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