Counting blessings of government Not always the villain, it deserves some credit

The Economy

November 22, 1998|By Jay Hancock

IF ELLEN SAUERBREY lost the governor's race because Marylanders thought she came from the political edge, her husband did not help her.

"With one exception, any problems that ever existed in society have either been created by government or made worse by government," Wilmer Sauerbrey told The Sun in September. The exception, he said in comments repeated in the Washington Post, is disease.

A swipe at Maryland's 418,000 federal, state and municipal employees, many of whom vote, Wilmer Sauerbrey's premise may grant that government can do at least some good. "I'm not saying we've got to get rid of government," he said in a brief interview, although he declined to philosophize in detail.

But his statement rings so loudly with the prevailing "taxes are the problem," "markets fix everything" tirade that it suggests a response. You don't have to ignore government's talent for harm and blunder to acknowledge its blessings. You don't have to discount capitalism's genius to see its limits.

What human problems has government mended?

Ignorance. Public education was the bedrock of this country's rise to world leadership in the 1800s. The GI Bill after World War II fueled three decades of prosperity unmatched in history. Economic growth doesn't follow the mere accumulation of capital or natural resources. It takes investment in people, and taxpayer dollars have done the main job.

Chaos. Markets don't work in anarchy. They need law plus order, courtesy of the politicians. It's often said that capitalism has failed in Russia. Capitalism hasn't failed. Government has. It's not capitalism if it lacks property rights, a banking system and a fair stock market.

Insignificance. Our most heroic attempts to transcend time, space and mortality are often public works: The Pyramids. The Parthenon. Renaissance voyages of discovery. Space exploration. Investigating the atom.

Isolation. Governments have built roads for 2,500 years. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's interstate highway system knit 48 states together.

Invasion. You can't privatize the Pentagon. Everybody benefits from sovereign might. So everybody pays for it, like it or not.

Pollution. With no regulation, Yosemite gets overrun with condos. The Chesapeake dies. The radio spectrum, air-travel corridors and other communal assets lapse into unrefereed mayhem, as every private interest grabs for a piece.

Neglect of basic research. Another classic market failure. Even the most optimistic venture capitalists won't back science that's unlikely to pay off for 30 or 50 years. Government will, at the Goddard Space Flight Center, the National Institutes of Health and so forth.

Today's arguments about U.S. government concern relatively small differences over weapons control, tariffs, welfare, corporate subsidies, labor laws, taxes and rights. They're about adjustments, about the shutters and paint on the government mansion.

The important parts are the floor and foundation, which never get a thought until they quake beneath the feet. Ask the Bosnians what that's like.

Go ahead and gripe on April 15. But tone it down.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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