The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

What’s a government for, anyway?

September 4, 2005

Dan’s absolutely right about progressivism, which among other things led us to the situation that we had for much of the twentieth century in which the role of the government involved providing services for citizens in need. The nature of the social contract was altered by such initiatives as Social Security, income taxes, and the Federal Reserve system: government became a way to coordinate resources so as to roughly equalize social opportunities and provide people with a “new deal.”

Welcome back to the 19th century, folks. If we doubted it before, it should be entirely apparent now: we now have a federal government that is increasingly uninterested in providing services of any kind, and prefers to focus on defending the country against external threats. People have been scratching their heads and wondering why it seems easier for the federal government to build shelters and string electrical lines in Iraq than it does in New Orleans, but I actually don’t think that this is all that surprising: doing things like this requires advance planning and timely coordination, and the federal government seems to be steadily getting out of the business of remaining involved in such things. Why else would FEMA’s budget have been cut back so drastically, and a known incompetent installed as FEMA chief?

I’m not suggesting that this was deliberate sabotage, but instead that things like planning for domestic disasters was simply not the kind of thing that the Administration gave all that much thought to. Terrorist attacks? That’s national security in the “defend the territorial integrity of the United States” sense, so that’s perfectly okay. But for domestic issues, well, that’s where we let the Magic Of The Market ™ do its work.

And guess what? It worked. Seriously. The Magic Of The Market ™ ensured that those with the resources to do so got clear before things got bad, and those without resources were trapped. And if we incorporate the assumption that the market always produces optimal outcomes, what follows? That the people left in New Orleans must have wanted to stay there? That they chose to stay there? In any event, the government doesn’t really have to do much, or at least not especially quickly…

Do you see the coherence of the logic here? If one has a 19th-century view of the state, then what should happen in the case of such disasters is that private initiative should take over. And there have been heroic private efforts to aid people, ranging from donations to the Red Cross to efforts to provide shelter to those left without any. Ergo, there’s no need for the state…oh yeah, until the political backlash begins, and the 19th century folks in charge of things now are confronted with the fact that large segments of the public are not happy with the implications of a government that leaves so much to the vagaries of the free market.

The issue here is one of general principle: should governments be about providing services for their citizens — should they be, in effect, instruments for the collective improvement of the lives of a people — or should they be about standing back and letting people’s private initiative reign virtually unchecked, in the hope (or perhaps blind faith) that the best solution will eventually materialize? I know which century I’d rather live in. How about you?

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.