Why people hate government

By Barry Bluestone | Boston.com | October 7, 2012

In 1965, according to a national Gallup Poll, 35 percent of Americans considered “big government” to be the biggest threat to the country in the future. Slightly fewer (29%) named “big business” as the biggest threat while just 17 percent put this onus on “big labor.” This was the era of Lyndon Johnson and the federal government’s massive “War on Poverty.”

By 1983, fully 50 percent of those polled listed big government as the biggest threat with only 20 percent naming either business or labor. This was the era of Ronald Reagan and the mantra “Get the Government off my back.” By 2001, at the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency and “compassionate conservatism,” the Gallup poll revealed that two-thirds (65%) of Americans were most worried about big government. By contrast, less than a quarter (24%) feared big business and only 8 percent now worried about big labor.

Last year, in the third year of the Obama presidency, Gallup asked the same question and the results were largely unchanged from 2001. Two-thirds — 64 percent – still believed government posed the greatest threat to the future of the country. Despite the Great Recession, brought on in large measure as a result of the financial shenanigans of some of the largest banking businesses ever assembled on earth, only 26 percent of Americans believed business was the greatest threat to the country’s future.

Why the continued distrust and fear of government? It is mainly due to “asymmetrical information” and the lack of a serious education campaign about what government actually does for every last one of us every single day. Essentially, we take for granted what local, state, and federal agencies take care of as a matter of course and rarely consider that the stop light at the next corner was put there and maintained by a local government agency, that our safe drinking water was provided for and guaranteed by a multi-billion dollar state government investment, and that our life expectancy has increased by nearly ten years since the end of World War II mainly due to medical research funded by an array of federal programs.

A good experiment you might try is to keep track of all the things government does for you during a single 24-hour period. Even before you wake up on that day, a government inspector has assured you that your bedroom mattress will not cause you harm. Within the first hour, you will have clean water for your shower, sewers for your waste, and cornflakes for your breakfast that are not only safe but delivered to you along federal interstate highways, state roads, and local streets. And that’s all before 9:00 AM.

During the day, the federal government alone (not counting what state and local governments are doing) is working in the background on an enormous array of programs that benefit us in countless ways. For the sake of brevity, here is a short list of federal programs by function:

Provide for the National Defense

  • Army, Navy, Air Force, , Marine Corps, Coast Guard
  • National Guard
  • Special Forces
  • CIA
  • Missile Defense Agency (MDA)
  • State Department
  • Agency for International Development (USAID)
  • Arms Control and International Security
  • Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
  • Helsinki Commission (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe)
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • National Security Council

Assist the Private Economy

  • Establish Rules for Private Property
  • Copyright Office
  • Patent Office
  • Adjudicate property disputes
  • Commerce Department
  • Federal Reserve System
  • Bureau of the Engraving and Printing (Money)
  • Antitrust Division
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
  • Bankruptcy Courts
  • Court of Federal Claims
  • Economic Development Administration
  • Export-Import Bank of the United States
  • Farm Credit Administration
  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)
  • Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae)
  • Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac)
  • Government National Mortgage Association
  • Federal Housing Finance Agency
  • Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service

Provide for Basic Infrastructure

  • Federal Highway Administration
  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • Federal Railroad Administration
  • Federal Transit Administration
  • Maritime Administration
  • Railway Stations
  • Local Mass Transit
  • Commuter Rail
  • U.S. Postal Service
  • Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
  • Army Corps of Engineers
  • Bonneville Power Administration
  • Federal Maritime Commission

Enhance Education and Culture

  • Office of Elementary and Secondary Education
  • Employment and Training Administration
  • Vocational Training Programs
  • Employment Services
  • Commission on Fine Arts
  • Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • Library of Congress
  • National Science Foundation

Provide for Health

  • National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)
  • Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
  • Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Food Safety and Inspection Service
  • Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control Office
  • Indian Health Service
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Protect the Natural Environment

  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • National Parks
  • National Forests
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Forest Service
  • Migratory Bird Conservation Commission

Provide Information to Citizens

  • Food and Drug Administration
  • Vehicle Safety Information
  • Vehicle Efficiency Data
  • Agricultural Research Service
  • Agriculture Department
  • Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection
  • Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • Bureau of the Census
  • Bureau of Transportation Statistics
  • Congressional Budget Office (CBO)
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
  • Government Accountability Office (GAO)
  • Government Printing Office (GPO)
  • Legal Services Corporation
  • National Weather Service (NOAA)

Provide for Domestic Security

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons
  • Courts
  • Jails
  • Prisons
  • Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Bureau
  • Bureau of Prisons
  • Civilian Radioactive Waste Management
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
  • Federal Law Enforcement Training Center
  • Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission
  • Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
  • Federal Marshals Service
  • Mine Safety and Health Administration
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

This is just for starters. Which would you want to see disappear?

On the other hand, one firefighter receiving disability pay while he works out to win a body-building contest gets our dander up … as it should. So does one local public housing agency director who is on the take. But too many of us – if Gallup is right, two-thirds of us — then take such few idiosyncratic cases of bad behavior as though they were commonplace and blame “big government” for threatening our future. One piece of bad news is more powerful to our thinking about government than thousands of unnoticed, but absolutely critical, services conveyed to us silently and continuously by hundreds of government programs, most of which we couldn’t name if asked to do so.

We need to stop and think about what government actually provides for us before we follow the path to radically downsize government. To be sure, many government programs, like most businesses, can become more effective and efficient – but you would be hard pressed to find enough “waste and abuse” in government to permit major cuts in programs before decimating programs we all take for granted and would have trouble living without. We hate government, but can you imagine how much we will miss it once it’s gone?

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