A recent column by Robert Reich got me thinking about all of the ways in which we are helped by government services. He mentioned a few, but it goes far beyond that. I challenge anyone in the U.S. who is anti-government to go a week without making use of any government service. I am confident they will not be able to do it.
Reich talked about some of the biggies. Getting Social Security benefits. Unemployment benefits. Welfare benefits. Government-backed student loans. Mortgage interest deduction. There is much more.
Without my student loans long ago, I would not have the education needed to hold the job I have today. Long after the loans are paid off, I am still “using” them. Long after graduating from the Los Angeles Unified School District, I’m still using the public education I received.
How much of your savings do you put away in case of unemployment? Disability? Or do you “use” those government benefits every day even without receiving any government payment because you plan your savings around knowing they will be there when you need them?
Let’s be clear about what we mean by using a government service. It would clearly be cheating in taking on this challenge to hoard products before the week starts that are obtained from the government to use during that week. If the product was obtained using a government service, regardless of when that government service was performed, it can’t be used during the week.
For example, a road may have been built by the government years ago. Driving on that road during the week is not allowed. It would not be there if it were not for the government.
Ready, Set, Go!
OK, ready to start the challenge?
Get naked. Now!
Those clothes came to you over government-built roads. They were transported on trains (remember that the railroads were built on huge amounts of land given to the railroad companies by the government). They passed through government-run airports and sea ports, using federal air traffic control and navigation systems. And don’t forget the free-trade agreements.
Unless you are wearing 100% cotton made on the plantation you have had in the family for generations without the benefit of outside seed or fertilizer, the clothes have got to go.
It should be getting pretty clear that it is going to be hard to find any kind of product to use. Government provides infrastructure that makes commerce efficient. Without government, we’d be Somalia.
I hope during the week you were not planning on drinking water or going to the bathroom.
Here in the City of Los Angeles, all of the electrical, water, sewer, and garbage collection systems are provided directly by the government.
Even if you have private utilities, they operate under exclusive contract with the government. They would be much less efficient if they had to compete with others, deal with duplicated distribution systems, and contract with thousands or millions of separate property owners to get the rights of way to build those distribution systems.
Even if you have your very own cesspool, does it get emptied by a truck that travels on government roads?
One of the largest sources of food in our country is California. Besides the problems of using roads to bring seed and fertilizer to the farms and to bring produce to your table, all that food needs water. In California, that water exists because of massive government infrastructure that ensures that a large portion of the state’s water supply is available to agriculture.
So, let’s get out of town and rough it (I’ll excuse the road trip this will require prior to starting the challenge). Go camping. But not at a National Park. State Park. County Park. And there is still that nagging problem of where you will get your supplies and how you will dispose of your waste.
I have not even touched on our physical security. Fire Departments. Police. Military. FBI. CIA. Navy Seals. The Marines were created to fight piracy that threatened private commerce, and they continue to do that fine job. It is hard to say when we “use” these services because we go about our daily lives just taking our physical security for granted.
Contracts and Patents
Can’t we give some credit to private industry? Of course we can. It would be just as hard to go a week without private industry goods and services.
But private industry in our complex world could not exist without government. A big factor not already mentioned is contracts.
You can try to avoid using government services through private contracts, but contracts are only as good as their enforcement mechanism. None of us wants to enforce our contract by beating up the other guy (and risk being beaten up even though we were in the right). Contracts depend on courts. Contracts are worthless without the backing of the government. Without this, we’d be Somalia.
Similarly, the Constitution calls for the federal government to promote research and arts through patents and copyrights. This government protections for scientists and engineers has propelled us to the front of the technological world.
We depend on the government for our communication systems.
The Constitution called out the federal power to create Post Offices and Post Roads, ensuring efficient two-way communication over long distances. Modern technology has enhanced the mechanism and enormously improved the result, but the principle is the same.
Government has long ensured that broadcasters can use dedicated frequencies without interference with each other or with pirate broadcasters. This began with the signing of the 1906 Berlin Convention and the 1912 passage of a law to regulate radio.
The first successful transatlantic telephone cable came from an agreement between governments of the U.S., Canada, and UK.
The government protection of the AT&T monopoly helped the new industry thrive and connect across the country. Ironically, the breakup of AT&T by the U.S. courts fostered immense competition and thus innovation that gave you the marvelous mobile phones of today and the various choices in hardware and service vendors. Remember when there was just one model of phone, a big clunky thing with a dial? Is that what we would still have today without government “interference”?
The government’s space program gave us satellite communication and GPS navigation systems. Remember when it was a big deal to hear a broadcast via satellite? Now it happens every day on the Evening News. Now we can pick up a phone and directly dial Darwin, Australia. Governments also pushed forward the development of the jet engine during WWII. The whole world has become a very small place thanks to the government.
Of course, private industry depends heavily on all of this infrastructure, too. Without government assistance to communication, many business could not exist today. Almost no business would be the same. And all of those industry products are off limits during the challenge.
And let’s not use the Internet. That was created by Al Gore. Seriously. The predecessor of the Internet was the ARPANET. It was created by the Defense Department (DARPA). The transition from ARPANET to Internet was mostly a political transition from pure government control to distributed control by a public-private combination. That transition was led by then-Sen. Gore.
Whether you think in terms of DARPA creating the physical infrastructure of ARPANET or Gore creating the political infrastructure of the Internet, without the government, there would be no Amazon, Google, Facebook, LA Progressive…
Think you could go a week without any of these things? Could you even go a day?
Richard M. Mathews
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