A LOT OF what the president says and does is ripe for criticism. But what he said the other day about no one being an island, about how our parents and our communities and our teachers and mentors and, yes, our government all contributed to our success is not one of those things.
If you’re wondering who in the world would criticize such obvious commentary, it’s because you don’t recognize the full context of that bizarre, ridiculous, one hopes bungled quote that came in the middle of it: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
I have no interest in defending or attacking the president; I’ve got more than enough to keep me busy with state government. But the debate that his out-of-context quote has generated cuts to the heart of what is becoming the central question about our state and local governments: Does government play any useful function in our lives?
Some critics consider asking that question as absurd as the president’s quote. We ran a column on our Commentary page Sunday by Charles Krauthammer, in which he declared declarations about the importance of government infrastructure “banal” — in effect an attempt by the left to create a straw man from a universally accepted truth. And the discussion would indeed be banal if, as he claimed, the debate between left and right were simply about how big our government ought to be, “about transfer payments and redistributionist taxation, about geometrically expanding entitlements, about tax breaks and subsidies to induce actions pleasing to central planners.”
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Perhaps in Mr. Krauthammer’s world, that’s as far as the debate goes. But in South Carolina, it’s not even unusual any more for me to encounter people, in my own conversations and indirectly on blogs and social media sites and news releases and even at the State House, who seem honestly to believe that government is inherently inefficient, evil even, that it does nothing constructive, that we would all be better off without it.
This idea used to be confined to the lunatic fringe, but now respectable people have no qualms about attaching their names to it: The sky is blue. The Earth revolves around the sun. The government does nothing but get in our way.
Yes, I know, you want to dismiss this as hyperbole, the stuff of over-excited political debate. But it has become ubiquitous. Words have meaning, and consequences, and when such preposterous assertions become commonplace, they change the way we think, which changes the way we act.
Does the government get in people’s way? Of course it does. It gets in my way when it says I can’t drive as fast as I’d like to. It gets in businesses’ way when it tells them they can’t make 8-year-olds work 12-hour-days in sweat shops. And yes, it gets in our way in some pretty absurd ways as well.
It also performs essential functions. It provides not just physical infrastructure — roads and bridges — but the infrastructure of society. In a way that individuals cannot.
It creates and maintains a monetary system, without which we would be reduced to bartering, without any common agreement about the value of bartered materials. Just try to do that with a credit card — or your smart phone.
It provides a criminal justice system, with police to arrest the people who break into our homes and businesses and courts to prosecute them and jails to lock them away in.
It provides a civil justice system, which allows businesses and individuals to litigate their disputes before neutral observers, who attempt to fashion a fair solution, even if they don’t always succeed, and then have the ability to enforce that solution — something Judge Judy will always lack.
It provides the regulations without which most people would not be willing to invest in the stock market, or trust that an electronic transfer of funds really will occur when a debit card is swiped. We don’t put our money in Bank of America or even the local credit union because we trust the integrity of their corporate officers. We give them our money because we trust that they will follow the laws and regulations of the government, because they will face severe consequences if they don’t.
Of course business owners built their businesses — unless they inherited them or bought them from someone who did. Their initiative and hard work and luck set them apart.
As important as parents are to our success, one sibling can create a multi-billion-dollar business while another languishes on welfare. As much as we need good teachers, even the best have some students who drop out of school. Although government policy can give some businesses a leg up, others can go bankrupt even with too-generous government grants.
That’s because some people have initiative, and some do not. Some people are creative, and some are not. Some people are smart, and some are not. And while the schools can affect which group any individual is in, government does not eliminate those basic differences.
At the same time though, the vast majority of people who own businesses would not have been able to do that if we didn’t have a monetary system and a court system and roads and police and other functions of government. The vast majority of people who have any sort of success would not have it in a world without government. In fact, they wouldn’t have it if not for the peculiar kind of government that our country embraced from the start: self-government.
Can, and should, our government be more efficient? Of course so. Is there room to debate whether the government should bail out the banks or the auto industry or help pay for our medical care? By all means. Is there a legitimate question as to whether taxes are too high or too low? Certainly.
But the vast majority of Americans would not have the lives we take for granted — lives that are inconceivably luxurious compared to the lives lived by the overwhelming majority of people throughout human history — if it weren’t for our flawed but better-than-any-alternatives government.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571.