Government Works

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands at the end of
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands at the end of the last debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

"Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem."

Ronald Reagan spoke these toxic words at his presidential inaugural in January 1981. It is probable that no more destructive sentence than this has been spoken by an American president in modern times. Indeed, some future Edward Gibbon may well trace the decline and fall of American greatness to the poison this utterance injected into the veins of the American body politic.

That future Gibbon might discern the zenith of American civilization as that marvelous, all-too-brief period between the close of World War II and the end of the 1970s. Surely, these were our golden years, the great Antonine age of prosperity and optimism, of success and self-confidence, of generosity, good cheer, and good will.

A robust American government, directed by public-spirited, civic-minded leaders, supported by a bipartisan consensus, was the beating heart of American achievement in this era. This was a government that did not timidly retreat from great challenges. ather, it prevailed in large measure by conceiving and constructing great public works.

America's first grand gesture was directed outwards, towards a Europe laid prostrate by World War II. For four years, from 1947 to 1951, the United States, through the Marshall Plan, expended treasure and lent technical assistance to the rebuilding of Europe. Our generosity extended even to our mortal enemies -- the German nation against whom we had fought two wars in a span of thirty years. The private sector could not restore a continent ravaged by war. But the concentrated power brought to bear by a beneficent American government accomplished the task.

But America, too, needed rebuilding, new infrastructure, new avenues of transportation and commerce. To this end, President Dwight Eisenhower called on Congress to fund the construction of the Interstate Highway System -- called "the largest public works project since the pyramids." Comparable in magnitude to the roads and aqueducts the Romans stretched across their empire, this system today dominates trade and travel within the United States. From groaning truckloads of freight to families on vacation, easy mobility across the nation is assured by the collective governmental effort that was the interstate highway system.

Nor should we forget the space program. Three months into his presidency, in May 1961, the Democrat John F. Kennedy pledged that America would send astronauts to the moon and return them safely home before the decade was out. The Republican Richard Nixon would see to this promise's fulfillment a mere eight years later -- yet another triumph of American government organized in the pursuit of greatness.

And government was front and center, not only in the construction of roads and bridges, rocket ships and lunar landers, but in the betterment of men's hearts. For this was the enduring accomplishment of the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Acts demanded that we treat our neighbors with decency and respect, regardless of the color of their skin. It required something that no prior legislative enactments had ever dared seek -- the banishment of hatred from the precincts of the human mind.

To considerable extent, thanks to governmental oversight and involvement, enforcement and teaching, success has been achieved. Klan lynchings no longer routinely blot the American South; schools and employment must be open to all; the races live together in greater familiarity and harmony than ever before in American history. This is not to deny that much remains undone, or that the threat of racist recrudescence is past. But we must still acknowledge that we have made enormous forward strides and that without the resources of government such progress would have been unthinkable.

So much more can still be credited to government's good works. The silent spring Rachel Carson so painfully evoked, an eerie landscape emptied of songbirds by deadly pesticides, helped ignite an environmental movement that led to the creation of a regulatory regime that cleaned up the toxic pollutants all around us. American rivers no longer catch fire, as the Cuyahoga did in 1969; dozens of Americans no longer die in smog-induced temperature inversions, as happened at Donora, Pa., in 1948. At the state level, public university systems, such as in Wisconsin and California, charged no or only nominal tuition, educating a generation and building the human capital American society so desperately needed to sustain and replicate itself.

But all of this now seems as quaint as dirigibles or horse-drawn buggies. We no longer quest after greatness. Rather, we inhabit a petty, crankish, small-minded world, in which politics is dominated by grievance and resentment. Republicans have had thirty years to make perfect this message -- We demand lower taxes! What has government ever done for you? It merely gives those other people, those slackers, something for nothing! Shrink government and drown it in the bathtub!

This is the constant, sickening refrain. We are not summoned to boldness. We are not inspired to reach beyond ourselves. No, we are warned that some dark, sinister presence just might have its hands in our wallet. Government is the problem, government is the problem.

Barack Obama, the heir and legatee of proud, activist government, lost his debate with Mitt Romney on Oct. 3 when he failed to mount a philosophical defense of the common good. His performance has subsequently been stronger, but chiefly at a tactical, not at a strategic level. It seems he still cannot frame the words, he cannot muster the firepower, to defend a robust American government. Perhaps it is timidity, perhaps it is calculation, perhaps it is nothing but expediency, but if he loses he will have only himself to blame.

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