Ask yourself this question: “What has government done for me lately?” If you are like most Americans, you will probably answer: “Not much.” Many people feel like they pay a lot in taxes but don’t really get anything back from government. Surveys show that 52% of Americans believe that “government programs have not really helped me and my family.”1 But let’s see if that is really true. Let’s examine a typical day in the life of an average middle-class American and try to identify some of the ways that government improves that person’s life during that 24-hour period.
You are awakened by your clock radio. You know it is actually 6:30 because the National Institute of Standards and Technology keeps the official time. And you can listen to your favorite radio station only because the Federal Communications Commission brings organization and coherence to our vast telecommunications system. It ensures, for example, that radio stations do not overlap and that stations signals are not interfered with by the numerous other devices – cell phones, satellite television, wireless computers, etc. – whose signals crowd our nation’s airwaves.
Communications, airwaves, and time keeping. Right out of the gates government helps. You’re not even awake to bitch about all that government is taking from you before you are benefiting from the invisible wirring of the machines of government making all of this possible. (Not to mention you weren’t blown up by our enemies in the middle of the night thanks to our national defense, but that benefit is so obvious that it no longer requires mention)
Like 17 million other Americans, you have asthma. But as you get out of bed you notice that you are breathing freely this morning. This is thanks in part to government clean air laws that reduce the air pollution that would otherwise greatly worsen your condition.
While you would have to retool this argument, it is easy to say that regulation protects the Commons, which are often insible to market signals putting such damage beyond the horizen of what markets can see. If it wouldn’t play a part in a transation it wouldn’t be seen by markets. Why not pollute for more profit? Everyone else doing it means you have to to compete. Regulation gives everyone a relative playing field but cleaner air on absolute terms. The rebuttle is always that Regulation hurts business by being more costly. You wouldn’t lose a competitive advantage if everyone has to abide by the same rules.
You go into the kitchen for breakfast. You pour some water into your coffeemaker. You simply take for granted that this water is safe to drink. But in fact you count on your city water department to constantly monitor the quality of your water and to immediately take measures to correct any potential problems with this vital resource.
Water isn’t a luxury, it’s a public good.
You flip the switch on the coffee maker. There is no short in the outlet or in the electrical line and there is no resulting fire in your house. Why? Because when your house was being built, the electrical system had to be inspected to make sure it was properly installed – a service provided by your local government. And it was installed by an electrician who was licensed by your state government to ensure his competence and your safety.
You sit down to breakfast with your family. You are having eggs – a food that brings with it the possibility of salmonella poisoning, a serious food-borne illness affecting tens of thousands of Americans every year. But the chance of you getting sick from these eggs has now been greatly reduced by a recently passed series of strict federal rules that apply to egg producers.
Private markets can provide safe food too, but a universal standard catches even more. Why not have both the incentive of profit and a good company name to motivate companies to provide safe food, and also post hoc inspections to make sure whatever they miss is caught? This is food going into our body. We can be made sick or die from bad food. One would have to be against regulation for its own sake to put inconvenience of business above the health of millions of people.
You go into your newly renovated bathroom – one of a number of amenities that you enjoy in your house. But the fact that you can legally own your own house is something made possible by government. Think about this: “ownership” and “private property” are not things that exist in nature. These are legal constructs: things created by laws that are passed and enforced by government. You couldn’t even buy your home without a system of commercial laws concerning contracts and a government that ensures that sales contracts are enforced. So the fact that you live in your own home is, in part, a benefit of government and the rule of law.
The big one. How is there even such a thing as “natural ownership?” Certainly, people can have things without governments. Yes, we get it, we always have. Cavemen had tools. You can bring things under your custodianship. But such ownership is only enforceable by anarchy. Unregulated strength and private power. If someone wants it bad enough they can just take it. You’re not free from the dude more powerful than you. Now imagine so much of our productive powers, creativity, and enterprise wasted on merely keeping ourselves from being attacked or robbed, so much of our freedom to enjoy property rights under constant siege from bandits or robbers, and you have no examples of widespread productive growth and prosperity occurring in such a system.
Government also helps you own your house in more than the legal sense. On a more practical level, the federal government actually gives you money every year to help pay for your house. It’s called a mortgage interest tax deduction and it is one of the larger benefit programs run by the federal government – amounting to over $60 billion dollars a year. You can also deduct any real estate taxes you pay. These largely overlooked subsidy programs have enabled millions of people to buy their first home or to move up to a larger home than they could afford otherwise.
Back in the bathroom. You use the toilet and flush it. Your local government then takes care of transporting this waste, treating it, and disposing of it in an environmentally responsible manner – all without a second thought by you.
As you are getting dressed, a glance outside the window shows some ominous clouds. You check the weather on your TV. All these weather forecasts are made possible by information gathered and analyzed by the National Weather Service, a government agency. Every day, on your behalf, it takes in 190,000 weather observations from surface stations, 2,700 from ships, 115,000 from aircraft, 18,000 for buoys, 250,000 from balloons, and 140 million from satellites – all just to help you plan what to wear and make sure you don’t get stuck in a snow storm. And oh yes, this agency may save your life with its hurricane and tornado warnings.
A lot of the Economy depends on what the weather is going to be like, especially the agricultural sector, and by extension, so much of our food. We are able to make view helpful weather forecasts, and plan accordingly, thanks to a large and elaborate system of weather infrastructure, satellites, public goods and infrastructure, and delivery put in place by the common wealth. Something everyone who earns money, benefits from. You benefit from a thing that needed a thing that needed a thing that was made possible by government. People just see the fridge they want to buy at the store. They don’t see the massive scaffold that made that thing possible.
Before you leave home, you take your pills to control your high blood pressure. But how do you know that this medicine is safe or effective? Without the testing required by the Food and Drug Administration, you wouldn’t. And without the vigilance of the FDA, you could easily fall victim to unscrupulous marketers of unsafe and worthless medicines.
You put a couple of letters in your mailbox. For less than the price of a cup of coffee, a government employee will come to your house, pick up the letters, and have them delivered in a few days to someone on the other side of the country. A pretty good deal.
You and your child walk across the lawn to your car and arrive without getting dog poop on your shoes. A small but welcome achievement that is made possible now by a local law that requires people to clean up after their pets. Also, the reason your neighborhood is not plagued by stray cats and dogs is that your local Animal Control officer is on the job dealing with this constant problem.
You help your young child into your car and you pull out of your driveway. You have now entered an experience that is improved by government in almost more ways that you can count. Driving your car is inherently dangerous. But it is made immensely safer by government laws and regulations, such as those mandating child safety seats and the use of seat belts – rules that have saved tens of thousands of lives. Driving down the street is also made much safer by a local government that enforces traffic laws and discourages people from driving too fast or driving drunk. Most state governments also minimize your risk of being run into by someone driving on bald tires or with faulty brakes by requiring regular inspections of all vehicles. And state driver’s license examinations ensure that all drivers are at least minimally competent and can actually see the road. In addition, if you are hit by another car, the potentially disastrous costs of an accident are covered because the government requires that all drivers to have auto insurance. In fact, without this extensive network of government laws and regulations covering automobiles and driving, it would be foolish for us to ever venture out on the road.
You might not even be alive if there were no qualifications for people to operate dangerous vehicles. Cue up the funny joke about how inefficient and slow the DMV is here. But the job gets done, and I’ve never had any problem getting in and out.
You drop your child off at day-care. It took a long search to find a good program and it is an expensive one, but it is worth it so you can feel confident that your child is in a safe, nurturing, and stimulating environment while you are at work. One of the reasons you can afford this program is the $3,000 child care tax credit you get from the federal government every year. Equally important, your child benefits from the fact that most state governments now enforce day-care requirements for group size, ratios of children per staff member, teacher training, nutrition, health, safety, and space requirements.
Your trip on the freeway is much safer due to federal restrictions on the number of hours that truck drivers can operate their vehicles without resting. Thousands of people die every year from truck-related traffic accidents, but it would be much worse without these regulations that keep sleepy truck drivers off the road.
You arrive at work and take the elevator. You just assume that the elevator is safe; and it is, thanks in part to the annual elevator inspections conducted by your state government. It is probably nothing you will appreciate until the next time the elevator breaks down with you inside, and that makes you think a bit more about the reliability of elevators.
While at work, your rights and wellbeing are constantly protected by a wide-ranging network of federal and state laws. The Occupation Safety and Health Act works to protect you from unsafe and unhealthy work conditions. Federal law protects you from workplace discrimination based on race, gender, religion, national origin, or disability. State laws may also require your employer to purchase worker’s compensation insurance so that you are covered in case you are injured on the job
For lunch you have your usual sandwich and microwaveable cup of soup. But why did you choose that particular soup? Perhaps because it was low in salt and fat. But how do you know that? Because the government requires all food packaging to have a truthful and easily readable panel on the label that supplies you with the nutritional information necessary to make a good choice. Food companies tell you what they want you to know about their products, but the Food and Drug Administration’s labeling requirements tell you what you need to know to eat in a healthy way.
How do you know the lettuce in your sandwich is not laced with unhealthy doses of pesticides? Because the Department of Agriculture has developed and is enforcing uniform standards for pesticide residue on raw foods.
Microwave ovens are potentially very dangerous machines, but you can use this one with confidence because of detailed government regulations that limit the maximum amount of radiation leakage and mandate two different safety interlocks that prevent its operation with the door ajar or open.
After lunch, you walk to a nearby ATM and get some cash out of your account – and your money is actually there. That wasn’t always true during the economic depression of the 1930s when many banks failed. But your money is safe — as it was during the recent financial and banking crisis — because the government guarantees your deposits. In addition, those pieces of paper you put in your wallet are only worth something thanks to the federal government. Our monetary system is entirely a government creation, and the value of money is only maintained because the government regulates the money supply and protects it from counterfeiters. Quite an important service really.
Back at work you hear rumors about a new downsizing plan being talked about by management – a fairly typical occurrence in these days of heightened national and international corporate competition. You know your job is one that could be lost, but you also know that you will be eligible for state-mandated unemployment insurance should that happen. This is just another way that government helps you to cope with the economic risks and uncertainties of a modern economy.
On a break, you call your elderly mother in the hospital to check on how she is recovering from her broken hip. Thanks to Medicare, her medical expenses are covered and she does not have to worry about this becoming a financial disaster for her. Thanks to the federal Family and Medical Leave act, you will also have the right to take several days off to tend to your mother when she comes home from the hospital.
You call to arrange for a physical therapist to work with your mother when she comes out of the hospital, and again this is paid for by Medicare. And you can be reasonably confident that she will get good therapy because your state Department of Health has a program of examining and licensing these therapists in order to ensure the quality of their work.
You leave work—thanks to the government-mandated 40-hour workweek. Labor Department regulations prevent your company from making you work past 5:00 unless it pays you overtime.
You stop at a local gas station to fill up. The very fact that this oil company offers this gas to you for sale is dependent on the existence of certain government laws. This company would not do business in your town without a legal system that assures them that you will pay for any gas you pump into your car. This economic exchange – like buying your house – would not be taking place without a system of statutory and common law that protects private property and regulates sales transactions. This simple sale is covered by Article Two of the Uniform Commercial Code – dozens of pages of laws that regulate every phase of a transaction for the sale of goods and provide remedies for problems that may arise.
You pump 15 gallons of 87 octane gas into your car and pay for it. But how do you know that you really got 15 gallons, and not 14½? And that the gas was actually 87 octane? This is only ensured by the presence of that little sticker on the gas pump that shows that a worker from your city’s Division of Weights and Measures has inspected the pump and the gas. These public employees make sure that you get what you pay for – from a pound of sliced turkey breast to a carat of diamond – by constantly testing and inspecting all commercial meters and scales, and by verifying the accuracy of checkout scanners. This is a crucial service, since more than half of the income of the average family is used to purchase necessities bought by weight or measure or scanned at a checkout station.
Fundamental role for government, insuring you get what you pay for. The “market forces” that weed out dishonestly could miss this fraud indefinitely, resulting in no less than theft from you. There is psychic income, a sense of security outside of market forces in knowing you are actually getting what you pay for.
How do you know the price you are paying for this gasoline is a fair and competitive one? In many states, the Department of Attorney General has been responsible for finding and prosecuting cases of price manipulation and price fixing by oil companies and distributors.
As you drive home, you notice the tree-lined streets and the nice houses in your neighborhood – generally a pretty good place to live. Thanks again to government. Without zoning rules, you might have an auto body shop or a fast-food outlet move in next door. Or worse yet, a fertilizer plant or a toxic waste site. But there are no noxious smells in the air, no excessive and dangerous traffic on your street – thanks to your government. Pleasant and livable neighborhoods are only possible with extensive government planning and zoning regulation.
As you approach your house, you see your child coming down the sidewalk. The government-provided sidewalk. The sidewalk that allows your child to walk to the neighbor’s house down the street to play with a friend without the risk of being hit by a car.
You go for a jog in your local public park.
You take your family out for dinner at a local pizza restaurant. You enjoy a good meal and no one gets sick from E. coli or other food-borne illnesses. This is in large part because your local government conducts regular inspections of all food establishments to protect the health of customers.
Asymmetric information. Government brings vital information to view so consumers can make informed choices. Rather than an ad hoc solution for allowing them to get away with anything and suing them after you kid dies of ecoli.
Back at your house. You settle in for a quiet evening at home – one that is undisturbed by those annoying telemarketers calling you up to try to sell you something. This is because you have signed up with a state or federal no-call registry – a government service now enjoyed by over 60 million Americans.
You do a quick check of your e-mail – just one of the many services you enjoy over the internet every day. We all tend to think of the internet as the product of those talented and imaginative entrepreneurs in the high-tech companies. But the internet actually began with government programs that created ARPANET and later NSFNET, early computer networking systems that developed the software and networking infrastructure that form the foundations of today’s internet. The government also helped to fund research that led to web browsers like Internet Explorer and search engines like Google.
One of the most profound accolades of government ever, basic research. Our Internet came from government. Libertarians are fond of “disagreeing” with this, and claiming such an important invention as their own. Losing something as important as the internet really harms their case. The private sector played a part, but the genesis was from your public tax dollars. In order for them to have a case against government, they have to demonstrate outright that Arpanet and the research at CERN outright did not occur, and that it simply would have been invented eventually anyway, both impossible, and one a flat out non sequitur.
You go to bed. During your sleep, you are protected by a smoke detector that your city requires to be installed in every residence. Maybe you would have bought one of these yourself, but this law helps to ensure that everyone is protected from the dangers of fire.
You are asleep in your comfy bed. Unlike that time you stayed in a small inn in Costa Rica, where you were woken up regularly at 4 in the morning by the roosters crowing in the neighborhood. By law, no one can keep roosters in your neighborhood and so you remain in blissful slumber.
It’s against the law to disturb people at certain hours. What law can you appeal for this without a government?
Honestly, why try to waste all the effort to refute all of this and keep screaming that taxes are theft or services “provided by the barrel of a gun?” Why not just argue for some more desirable balance or less waste. What is a real waste to to keep screaming like some kid that “Government steals from me” which is an argument that cannot be taken serious in the face of the actual evidence?