Defending Big Government

Jack Fleming, Opinion Editor

Hearing the word “swamp” used to remind me of biology lectures on wetland ecosystems and evoked fond memories of watching the various Shrek movies with family. But in recent years, what I associate with the word has changed significantly. President Donald J. Trump has forcibly appropriated and repopularized the phrase “drain the swamp” a phrase often employed by Ronald Reagan to justify slashing taxes and shrinking the government – in order to describe his intended eradication of corrupt Washington bureaucrats and various governmental agencies. This particular critique of our government system, however, is tremendously problematic. There is certainly much to criticize about the current state of our federal government, but any critiques must not obscure the reality that big government has an essential role to play in combatting economic inequality, keeping business interests firmly in check and fairly representing all citizens.

Americans have a fundamental tendency to undervalue and take for granted various important functions performed by the federal government. We traverse interstate highways paid for and constructed through the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, frequent federally maintained national parks and fly through US airspace carefully secured by federally employed air traffic controllers, all without a second thought. We typically gripe loudly about paying taxes, forgetting that they contribute to valuable things like public education and biomedical research, once again ignoring the notable role played by the federal government in improving our quality of life.

The 2008 economic crisis should also serve as a brutal reminder of the federal government’s important regulatory role and the profound consequences for citizens when such regulation is absent lack of adequate governmental regulation of financial institutions contributed significantly to the subprime mortgage crisis that led directly to the recession.

Conservative calls to abolish the federal education and interior departments are morally reprehensible in light of the essential work each agency is charged with doing. In its ideal form, the education department, often working in conjunction with the justice department, is tasked with ensuring that educational opportunities are accessible to all Americans, maintaining affirmative action policies and improving struggling and underfunded public schools. As the recent college admissions scandal clearly demonstrated, wealthy individuals possess considerable educational privilege it is incumbent on the federal government to level the playing field and ensure that a high quality education is attainable, no matter one’s socioeconomic status. Similarly, a well-functioning interior department also has tremendous value in terms of protecting and maintaining public lands and facilitating wildlife conservation.

Understanding the value of big government, however, does not mean that we have to worship it as being the embodiment of everything that is virtuous and benevolent. The 2010 Citizens United decision has allowed for unprecedented corporate influence in elections, essentially declaring that corporations have the same first amendment rights as individuals. We should be both wary and critical of the fact that many of our elected officials are beholden not to their constituents but to the whims of massive corporations and deep-pocketed donors with vested business interests, constantly engaged in lobbying members of Congress.

Indeed, Trump has filled certain governmental agencies, including the aforementioned departments of education and the interior, with individuals who dispute the right of their own agencies to exist and whose views align with private and corporate interests. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, for example, supports the voucher program, which allows for the funneling of public money into private, religious schools. And former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke drastically shrank the size of Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, paving the way for private exploitation of natural resources on what was formerly land available for the public enjoyment. Clearly, disastrous outcomes result when the federal government and corporations are in bed together something that certainly warrants criticism.

In the end, our big government is a flawed but essential part of our lives. At its worst it acts according to the whims of corporations, spies on its own citizens and violates individual freedoms through legislation like the Patriot Act. But at its best it facilitates our access to an excellent education, lends a helping hand when we are in need, regulates rapacious corporations and confronts problems impossible for individual states or the free market to solve. Ignore conservative calls to shrink the government and “drain the swamp.” Instead, we must work to strengthen our existing government and ensure that it consistently acts in the best interest of its constituents.