What Is Government For?

Democratic Perspective posed the question to Lane Kenworthy, Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Arizona and author of Progress for the Poor, Jobs with Equality, Egalitarian Capitalism and In Search of National Economic Success.

We began the discussion with a couple of quotes on the subject, one by Abraham Lincoln, “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but can not do at all, or can not so well do, for themselves – in their separate, and individual capacities.”

The second is by Jared Bernstein, “If too many Americans don’t believe in or understand what government does to help them, to offset recessions, to protect their security in retirement and in hard times, to maintain the infrastructure, to provide educational opportunities and health care decent enough to offset the disadvantages so many are born with…if those functions are unknown, underfunded, and/or carried out poorly, why should they care about how much this deal or the next one cuts?”

Then we turned to Kenworthy for his perspective.

“People take for granted all of the things that government can do,” he responded. “Protecting our physical safety with the police and military, money, clean air and water, liberty, sewage and water, disaster protection, to name a few. The insurance portion of government is also important, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and an array of smaller programs.”

“That’s not to say that government works perfectly,” he continued. “It doesn’t. But it is necessary.”

When asked to explain the anti-government sentiment in today’s politics, Kenworthy replied, “We have a long history of public opinion surveys. A lot will say that government should be smaller. But when you mention individual programs, the same people think we should be spending more. 20 percent of Americans believe deeply in smaller government,” he continued. “A big part of the reason is the economic crisis. When the economy is bad, a bigger share say they don’t have any confidence in government, or even the private sector. They want to blame someone for their problems.”

Finally, we asked Kenworthy to elaborate on one of his previous statements, “Although themes of opportunity and prosperity dominate American culture, more than one in ten Americans is poor according to the official government measure, inequality has increased markedly over the past generation, and the United States is more unequal than any other affluent country.”

“Things began to change in the 1970s,” he said. “During the period following WWII, we saw living standards and real income double in a generation. Since the 70s, progress has not changed. The economy grew, but wage growth slowed. And now the poverty rated is even higher after the crash.”

To read more from Lane Kenworthy, visit his blog at Consider the Evidence.

This entry was posted in Government, Interviews, Medicaid, Medicare, National Politics, Social Security and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.