What is the role of our government in our lives? You can ask 100 different people and get 100 different answers. The U.S. Constitution says it's "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity". Among people and parties, however, there are definitely two camps of thought. Among Democrats/Liberals the belief is that government is there to protect the citizens (from criminals, from fraud, from the abuse of power that comes with big money and big corporations). Among the Republicans/Conservatives/Libertarians, the belief is that government should barely exist at all. To them, government should be about maintaining a strong military, and preventing abortions, and that's about it.
The Tea Party movement, enflamed by Grover "drown-government-in-a-bathtub" Norquist believes we spend too much money on government, that it's too big, that they pay too much in taxes (never mind that tax rates are at their historic lowest rates ever). The budget deficit is proof in their eyes that government spends WAY to much - much more than it can afford. Try to explain that the reason the government is so far in arrears is because it took a huge pay cut when Bush slashed taxes his first year in office. Try to explain that the problem could be resolved by raising taxes, and they dutifully regurgitate the (false) right-wing talking point that the rich are "job creators".
The reality is that the government is a job creator. People think "bloated beaurocracy" and imagine the DMV when they think of government workers. Having lived in DC for almost 2 years now, I can attest that most government workers are like you or me. They work as data analysts, or project managers, or secretaries, or janitors, or any other mundane job that a person would have at a company, and they work for their pay, often with a certain satisfaction that they are serving their country. Further cuts to government spending would put these people out of work. With the loss of their paychecks comes the loss of spending they do, at local grocery stores and online. Vacation spending in other cities disappears. When the government creates a job, that taxpayer money goes right back to the taxpayers when the government employee spends it. Can you say the same for a rich person who is given a tax break? Why do you think the Cayman Islands is so prosperous?
This dichotomy between beliefs as to what government should be has really been crystalized by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) who wants to hold Hurricane Irene relief hostage for more spending cuts
. He believes that helping disaster victims is negotiable, a bargaining chip, not something a civilized society must do for its people. To him, it's just more Big Government that need not exist.
So before there's any more talk about how awful Big Government is, and how we should be controlling spending (not raising taxes on the rich), let's think for a bit about what we get with our Big Government:
Big Government is there when we need protection from criminals, rescue from fire or natural disaster, and cleanup and logistical support when hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes strike. They can coordinate help between states and provide funds as needed. Eric Cantor wants to hold these funds hostage to shrink government in other areas.
Big Government ensures our kids have access to an education, rather than being forced to work in factory jobs. It also protects kids from predators. Some small government advocates would like to do away with child labor laws.
Big Government ensures we have national parks and wildlife areas, so we don't forget where we came from as a nation. Small Government types would have these lands auctioned off so that oil companies could drill and mineral companies could mine.
Big Government ensures that every person in the country has access to the most basic necessities to survive (food and shelter). This tiny bit of government funding seems to irk some people no end, as if starving to death on the street is deserved for someone who has suffered a series of setbacks, or someone with mental or emotional illness.
Big Government regulates the stock market to ensure investors are protected from unscrupulous traders. Of course - it worked better when we had the regulations that were put in place after the stock market crash of 1929. A lot of those protections were removed by Republicans, which contributed to the type of trading and banking activity that led to the crash of 2008. Small Government fans think the market can regulate itself. Really?
Big Government keeps an eye on elections to ensure campaign financing is on the up-and-up. The recent decision by the SCOTUS has taken a lot of teeth out of what they can do. Small Government fans apparently think Congressional seats should go to the highest bidder.
Big Government ensures that radio, TV, phone, cable, and satelite communications are all managed properly. Imagine the chaos if they didn't?
Big Government also led to the internet, and ensures we all can communicate online.
Big Government regulates transportation in the air, on the land, on rail, and at sea. There is no way we could have the airline industries we have today (and all the jobs it creates and maintains) without the government ensuring planes weren't crashing into each other in mid-flight. Except for some roadwork which is managed at the state level, most of these involve crossing state lines, and need managment from a level above the states.
Big Government protects individuals from Big Business, whether it's from fraud, unsafe products, or workplace safety violations. Many Small Government advocates claim that this is the government "getting in the way" of business. Good - if a car is getting ready to run you over, you want someone with authority to step in and stop it.
Big Government keeps the power companies from gouging us. In most markets, one utility has a monopoly, so there is no "free market". Remember Enron? That's what can happen without regulation. They violated laws and paid the price, but if there were no laws, it would be commonplace.
Big Government monitors the safety of the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Before Nixon created the EPA, we had rivers catching on fire, and neighborhoods evacuated because they were cancer factories (Love Canal anyone?). What "invisible hand of the free market" is going to keep this from happening?
The reality is that we live in a different world than when our country was founded. The common phrase is that our planet is shrinking, with faster transportation and high-speed communication. States have not been autonomous entities for a long time. Business that only occurs within a single state is practically non-existent now, so Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution applies in almost every case. We've become more civilized, more equal, and more unified. Some of that required the government to force us to open our eyes, but - once opened - we've become a better people for it.
There probably is some waste and bloat and programs that have outlived their usefulness, but Big Government is not - nor has it ever been - the enemy. Greed, selfishness, unfairness, inequality, in justice - these are our enemies, and Big Government is our best common defense.