What Should Government Do?

war 2012Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives are fiercely debating widely differing conceptions of what tasks our government should perform. Although the shouting often seems to be only about money, it’s really about how public money should be spent and on whose behalf.

I’ll offer one task that I believe every good government, at any level, should perform – to help people put into crisis by circumstances outside of their control.

I’m thinking of families whose houses have been destroyed by tornado or wild fire or flood; victims of crime, by violence or fraud; those injured in industrial accidents or train wrecks, who might be covered by somebody’s insurance or might not.

We expect our government to provide a safety net for innocent victims of all such disasters, who have lost too much to help themselves. The quality of that net can serve as a measure of a government’s competence and values. The inability of FEMA to cope with the elementary needs of the people dislocated by Hurricane Katrina was judged as a more general failure of George Bush’s administration. Good government should have done better. The net should not have gaping holes.

If a good government must come to the aid of its most distressed citizens, then it certainly must also avoid creating widespread crises. Governments can’t control tornados, but they can make our highways safer and build better levees to reduce floods. If inadequate funds are directed toward maintaining our infrastructure, disasters like the Minneapolis bridge collapse are more likely.

The greatest source of social disasters is war. War destroys lives and livelihoods, houses and hometowns, possessions and infrastructure, on a scale far greater than any natural disaster.

steve hochstadtEven though the wars we are fighting right now are far from our shores, even though we have great advantages in technology and personnel, hundreds of thousands of American families are suffering from war. More than 6,400 troops have died in our wars since 2001. The unprecedented ability of modern medicine to preserve the lives of the wounded has led to an unprecedented number of veterans and families who need continuing help. More than 95 percent of troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have survived. The result is that nearly a million veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have applied for compensation for injuries they say are service-related. Underfunding and neglect of the Veterans Administration and its medical facilities means that the claims of more than 560,000 veterans from all wars are backlogged more than 4 months.

War is a decision of government. If our government enters war, it must take responsibility for the social and economic consequences, at a time when the federal budget is badly out of whack. Leaders must recognize and plan for the medical and emotional damage to our society.

We have killed many more people than we have lost. We have caused vast destruction in other countries, but avoided it here. We have punished many of those responsible for 9/11 and other terrorist plots. Yet the accomplishments of America’s two wars of the 21st century have not been worth the millions of American victims these wars have created.

Steve HochstadtThese days, having left Iraq and planning to leave Afghanistan, we again hear talk of an new war, a war against Iran. Like the failed wars we have been fighting, this future war is presented to us as a moral imperative, the inevitable confrontation with evil, a war we must fight.

Unless Iran actually puts our nation in mortal danger, declaring war on Iran would violate the trust that Americans put in our government to protect the lives of our citizens, to avoid creating predictable disasters. It’s what our government shouldn’t do.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Posted: Monday, 4 June 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on June 4, 2012
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."