Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Debate over the Role of Government

One serious difference between progressives and conservatives is their estimate of the value of government interventions. In conservative theory, government has only one function and that is to secure the liberties given to us in the Constitution. Any other government action is illegitimate and should be ended.
The view of the role of government at the other end of the political spectrum is much more generous. Progressives tend to look to the government to equalize life chances in our society. Its role includes passing legislation to promote equality of opportunity and to guarantee, as far as possible, a productive and happy life to all citizens .

But in pursuit of equality of opportunity, the government often gets involved in programs that do not benefit the intended beneficiaries and instead puts money in the pocket of shady operators.

A recent example of that is a government program that provides significant financial support for persons who want to study law. The government is prepared to give substantial loans to law students. The goal of this program is obviously to enable people with limited financial resources to train for and enter a lucrative and respected profession, the law.

Unfortunately this program didnot meet its goals but instead saddled many people with very large debts without opening a legal career to them. Here is what happened. Once the loan fund was available many law schools, especially for-profit law schools but not they alone, raised their tuition. Thus people who attend law school with the help of the government loan fund may end up owing more than $150,000.

The schools not only raised their fee but also lowered their admissions criteria in order to take in more tuition money. As a consequence the supply of lawyers increased while the demand for lawyers remained the same. At the same time there were more lawyers who lacked the ability to pass the rather demanding examinations one needs to pass in order to be allowed to practice law. More and more law students, saddled with a large debt, failed their bar exams and thus could not practice law. The money they spent on tuition, not to mention the interest on their loans, was wasted.

This attempt to to equalize the opportunity for entering the legal profession is a complete failure. It damaged the lives of those it hoped to help and instead put money into the pockets of unscrupulous law schools.

Cases like this one bolster the conservative outlook. In attacking government activities designed to increase equality of opportunity – affirmative action in education and hiring are the most notorious examples of that – conservatives point to cases like the law school tuition loan program to prove that such programs do not work but, instead, do tremendous damage.

It is not difficult to find many other cases where government, especially the federal government, has tried to improve life for American citizens but has failed. The "No Child Left Behind" Act is one well-known example of that. The constant testing of students has not been nearly as beneficial as originally expected.

But it is important to remember that not all government programs fail. One of the earliest government moves to reduce racial injustices was made by Pres. Truman in 1946 with the integration of the armed forces. Separate military units for whites and for African-American were abolished. Soldiers,  regardless of their origins or the color of their skin, now served together. In the 1950s began the efforts to integrate schools, a program that encountered many difficulties and failures but has made a significant difference. So has government insistence that citizenship rights, such as voting or holding public office, are owed to all Americans not only to whites.

There are much more established government functions which are usually overlooked in these the debates. Since medieval times governments have tried to make sure that coinage and money were trustworthy. They have supervised scales and measures to make sure that consumers were not cheated by unscrupulous grocers or butchers. Consumer protection has been a government function that everyone, except some business people, have supported wholeheartedly. We have always believed that the government, that is local government, should be in charge of the education of our children. Private schools are understood to be tools for stratifying our society by promoting inequality.

    We seem to be caught between two alternatives neither of which is fully satisfactory. We can devise government programs to to help our fellow citizens who are suffering. The price we pay for that are other government programs that do more harm than good. Or we can resist all government programs and leave the poor or those challenged by undeserved adversity to their own, inadequate devices.

    But these are, of course, not our only options. In many, not in all, situations the choice is not between having government programs and not having them. There is always the third possibility of communities rallying and providing assistance by their own efforts to those who need it.

    One familiar example of that are schools. In some communities citizens do not merely hand over their tax money to the school board and then let them do whatever seems best to them. Instead citizens remain actively involved in running the schools to provide the education they want for their children. Active citizen supervision makes the schools better along the lines desired by citizens.

    Many observers see a dilemma between an activist government that often fails and a conservative government that fails its needy citizens. But that dilemma exists only as long as we are unwilling to be active citizens in our own communities and help provide the services that we want for everyone. Schools are one example. So are food banks, clothing depositories, shelters for the homeless, refuges for battered women, and rape crisis centers. These are often provided by local efforts, largely financed by local contributions and staff, in part, by local volunteers.

    Citizens who are willing to give of their own time and share their own resources can do much to provide good services that a community needs without relying on the work of often inept government bureaucrats.

    Activist citizens may improve government services by supervising particular programs and raising questions about ineffective or damaging ones. The questions about the law school tuition loan programs, for instance, were  raised in an editorial in the New York Times (

    Citizen prepared to be active either in their communities or in keeping a close eye on government programs  are essential to a proper functioning of our social-political system. Both the endless complaints about government inefficiency or the kneejerk call for more government programs to solve new problems come from citizens unwilling to play their proper role as activists in their community and in the nation.