Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Our Necessary Government

We criticize our government often. That’s inevitable. Every action taken or not taken by our elected officials is going to yield a negative reaction from someone.

For example, if a citizen has a property full of broken-down washing machines or cars, his neighbors want that property cleaned up. They see it as a blight. The citizen, however, sees those items as salvageable, just waiting to be fixed and sold perhaps. He feels he can do whatever he likes with his property because he’s not hurting anyone.

If the city forces him to clean up the property, it pleases his neighbors while angering him – as well as some libertarians who consider the city’s actions to be overreach. If the city does nothing, the neighbors get mad at it for not doing its job. No matter which action is taken, someone gets mad.

This dynamic holds true for every action at every level of government. At the federal level, most of us don’t want to pay higher taxes. In fact, we want taxes to be cut. But we also want a strong military and Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. As our population ages, those who contribute financially to the government decline in number, while those who demand assistance increase.

We’re currently recovering from three hurricanes, requiring a vast amount of federal aid. What’s interesting about it from an academic standpoint, particularly with respect to Texas, is that its two senators voted against relief for Superstorm Sandy. Now they insist that people bail out their state.

Hypocrisy? Absolutely! But not much different than the hypocrisy of us voters, who say we’re taxed enough. We say the government should do away with some program or other so that we can get tax breaks or at least not pay any more. However, Carol wants to cut military spending while Ted wants to cut Medicaid, and Julia wants to means test for Social Security, while Bob wants to eliminate welfare and unemployment benefits.

Whenever there’s a surplus in my state (MN), Democrats generally want to spend it on education and infrastructure while Republicans generally want to spend it on tax cuts. Neither side cares a whit about the long-term fiscal health of the government. Both sides assume growth will continue at the same rate that produced the surplus despite the many recessions we’ve experienced over the past 150 years.

We are walking, talking paradoxes. So yes, government is bad because it’s wasteful. And yes, government is good because it helps us in times of need. And as long as people are running it, it’s going to continue to be both bad and good.

Does that mean we should just accept it as it is? Certainly not. But until we agree on what kind of country we want to be, what kind of government we want to have, we won’t be able to install a government that does what it’s supposed to do. And because we’re human, I don’t expect us to figure that out anytime soon.

Sorry to be a buzzkill.

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