An Argument For Big Government

by Eric Rawlins

The peak smog year ever in Los Angeles was 1955. That is why I believe in big government and high taxes.

When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1963, I had a room in the Berkeley hills with a fine view westward across the bay to San Francisco. At least it would be a fine view today; back then it sometimes was and sometimes wasn't. Often what I would get was a view into a featureless gray-brown haze, where San Francisco—and sometimes even Treasure Island halfway across the bay—simply disappeared outright into a smoggy soup.

It was like that all over back then, and many of us today have forgotten how bad it really was. The early Sixties were the days when urban rivers like the Cleveland River used to catch fire. Boston Harbor was a famous cesspool. People made jokes about painting the Hudson blue, and if you drove south from San Francisco it smelled like cheese any time of the day or night from the raw sewage that lapped up along the bay shore next to the highway.

We still have environmental problems, of course. But in 2004 you can see clear across San Francisco Bay every day, you can swim in the Hudson, and no urban river ever catches on fire.

How did such a thing come about? How is it that L.A. air can be better today than it was 50 years ago, despite the fact that the population has doubled and traffic levels quadrupled in that time?

The answer does not lie in the good intentions of industrialists or consumers; nor the efforts of earnest do-gooders; nor even the inevitable tides of historical progress. The plain answer, uncomfortable as it may be to those who believe in "free enterprise" and "small government", is that the air and water are cleaner than they used to be because government chose to make it so, and for no other reason. Today cars run cleaner and factories have scrubbers on their smokestacks, but the industrialists who installed those engines and scrubbers fought tooth and nail then—as they do today—against every law that made them do so. If allowed today, corporations would improve their bottom line and return the Bay and the Hudson to its 1960 state without hesitating as much as a heartbeat.

But as it happened, people wanted cleaner air and water, and they prevailed on their government to make it so. And since the government was in the hands of people who at some level shared that concern, it was made so. The car manufacturers and factory operators were brought under control, and no other entity—not ecological think tanks, nor benevolent foundations, nor any group of private citizens, nor even the corporations themselves (who, after all, have their stockholders to answer to)—would have had the muscle to bring it off.


If you ask people why America is a great country, the answer you are as likely to get as any other is that this is a place where "any kid can grow up to be President" (or a CEO, or some other top-of-the-food-chain position). There is plenty of truth to that, but I think it misses the mark. For one thing, people of ability and drive manage to succeed in most times and places, including in societies far more rigid than ours. Even a hereditary aristocracy like Tudor England had its Thomas Cromwells and William Cecils.

But more importantly, one might ask whether providing a more commodious upward path for the ambitious and driven is really the greatest gift American society has to grant.

For my money, the greatest accomplishment in this country's history is this: that America found a way that ordinary workers could do honest work for a living wage, and be treated decently for it. American society found a way for its ordinary members to share in the progress society made and the wealth society generated. It found a way to turn serfs and wage slaves into citizens—complete with dignity, a degree of control over their own lives, and a modicum of material comfort.

It had never happened before, and it did not occur naturally. It was certainly not a natural outgrowth of laissez-faire capitalism, as a brief glance at 19th-century history, with its 72-hour work weeks, disease-ridden slums, and murdered labor organizers will show. Capitalism is a matchless engine for generating wealth, but it does not ensure that that wealth will be shared. On the contrary, unregulated capitalism tends always toward concentration: concentration of production into fewer and fewer companies, and concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Without governmental oversight, the profits of large corporations simply go into the pockets of their owners.

This crowning achievement of American culture was a deliberate invention of the 20th century. It came about, once again, because government decided to make it that way, and government has kept it that way for 50 years through countless laws, commissions and other controls, from the GI Bill to the SEC to OSHA. The US government has spent the last two generations keeping American society from becoming a duplicate of Argentina's.

In our lifetime, the federal government has been the best friend the American citizen has ever had.


It is an astonishing accomplishment of the corporate right that it has managed to convince ordinary Americans that the government is somehow their enemy—that there is some need to get government "off our backs." Long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles notwithstanding, government spends most of its time on the backs of corporations, not individuals—which is why the corporate right is so determined to starve government to death with tax cuts and deficit spending. But the governmental mechanisms that have kept the environment habitable for the last 30 years, and working Americans prosperous for the last 50, are today being systematically dismantled. Future generations may well look back on the period from 1950 to 2000 as the golden age of the ordinary American—those bygone days when a worker could have a good life.

Is government corrupt? Often. Does it work against the interests of ordinary people? Sometimes. Is it inefficient? Always. But of all the forces at work in shaping the world I have to live in, it is the only one whose decisions I can hope to affect even slightly, whose processes are more or less open to my scrutiny, and who has my welfare at least a tiny bit at heart. None of that is true of Archer Daniels Midland or Time/Warner. For that reason, I want government big and I want it powerful.

Ford Motor Company used to hire spies to investigate the private lives of its employees to make sure they were behaving in ways the company approved of, and it was not shy about firing those who weren't. Mining companies in Appalachia used to simply gun down anyone who demanded a decent living wage. If those days are not to return again, we need a government that is powerful enough—and rich enough—to do battle with the other powerful forces in this land—to prevail on them to do what is right and not just what is profitable.

c. 2004 Eric Rawlins

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