Not long ago, I was reminiscing with a fellow elected official who is a great admirer of President Reagan. As for me, my thoughts about the Reagan years are more complicated and nuanced. When he mentioned the Gipper, I thought back to one of Reagan’s famous quips; “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” We both chuckled at the line, but it got me thinking about where we are today and what we’ve been going through in recent months.
I suppose those nine words might not be terrifying if you’re among those who have been blessed with various advantages, multiple opportunities, a higher standard of living and you hold the perspective that life is a zero sum affair—meaning that someone else’s opportunity or increased standard of living automatically comes at the expense of yours. But if you are among those who have traditionally been held at the margins of American life, the federal government is likely the thing that’s moved you from the margins to something more.
Absent the federal government, whole groups of people might still have to pay a poll tax or pass a literacy test in order to vote. Absent the federal government, “separate but equal” might still be the standard operating myth in everything from bathrooms to classrooms.
Absent the federal government, those inclined to discriminate might not have to work that hard at it and those with disabilities would still be unable to participate in the workforce or have access to programs and facilities that the rest of us enjoy. Without the federal government, a huge number of senior citizens would be destitute or homeless.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the sentiment that little of any value comes from dealing with the federal government because mostly what the feds do is take too much money through taxes, infringe upon our freedoms (whether speech or arms or worship), kill us through too much regulation that drives up the cost of almost everything, and saddles us with this PC cultural nonsense. Coming from that perspective, “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help” would frighten because it signifies nothing but loss.
Yet I also know that industries in almost every sector didn’t stop polluting our rivers and waterways with their excess waste through the goodness of their corporate hearts. It took laws, regulations, and the threat of penalty. And drug companies don’t spend hundreds of millions on multi-phased double-blind studies because they woke up one day and decided that putting out ineffective or downright harmful medicines was just bad form; it is government that ensures they meet a certain standard.
Absent the federal government, how many more people might be maimed or killed through unsafe or unsanitary working conditions in dozens of industries? How many more would be sickened by unsanitary food or poisoned by the unchecked use of pesticides absent government intervention? It is hard to know what our lives might look like if we lived in a country with an impotent federal government, though we’re getting closer to finding out. My guess is that we might look much as other countries do in this hemisphere.
I recognize that the federal government might be nothing but a punching bag for those who think national life is all a zero-sum affair, but for many more it’s been government that has ensured some degree of dignity and opportunity in our country. That’s not to excuse or ignore some stunning abuses committed by government as there have been many, but it is to say that where values and ethics are lacking or outright ignored, it’s government that’s filled in. Where the private sector has decided that there’s no profit to be made, government has stepped in to provide funding and resources.
As I write these words, there have been some 6,170,375 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in this country and we’ve lost 187,201 Americans to this virus just within a six-month timeframe. In some areas, businesses have lost 70 percent of their revenue since the pandemic hit. Fixate on the negatives if you must, but the only thing that has kept many afloat since March has been the government. From this side of the pandemic, “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help” doesn’t seem so terrifying after all.