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Why the ‘All Government Is Bad’ Movement….is Bad

Queensboro Bridge, NY, under construction, 1907

Queensboro Bridge, NY, under construction, 1907

Some people are staunchly opposed to anything involving government, especially federal government, and it’s easy to respect their consistency. But as Emerson said, A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

While it’s not easy to assert that government today, as exemplified by, say, the 112th Congress, is capable of looking after our interests, actually, all smirks aside, it does a fair job a fair amount of the time. Our roads, bridges, airports, security, education, unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicare, and much more are provided, fairly efficiently, through various levels of government. And despite the steady drumbeat of stories exposing official stupidity and worse, there are new examples every day for those who want to feel good about having to pay taxes.

Here’s one: the Food and Drug Administration’s new rules to combat food-related illnesses that have cropped up with alarming regularity and sickened tens of thousands of us each year:

Changes include requirements for better record keeping, contingency plans for handling outbreaks and measures that would prevent the spread of contaminants in the first place. While food producers would have latitude in determining how to execute the rules, farmers would have to ensure that water used in irrigation met certain standards and food processors would need to find ways to keep fresh food that may contain bacteria from coming into contact with food that has been cooked.

New safety measures might include requiring that farm workers wash their hands, installing portable toilets in fields and ensuring that foods are cooked at temperatures high enough to kill bacteria.

Now, some food producers will surely express outrage at this infringement of their rights and at the costs of the additional bureaucracy. They will hire lobbyists and public relations people and get friendly legislators to press their case that this development is actually not in the public interest. But it’s hard to argue that we consumers don’t really want these most basic health-protection measures.

Almost every day, members of Congress, that much-maligned institution, are actually proposing measures to deal with real problems that affect our well-being, and employees of federal agencies are working to establish rules and procedures to implement those measures.

To those who say they can do without government just fine—No, you can’t. You cannot make sure that a food processor keeps bacteria-contaminated uncooked foods away from prepared foods. You cannot ensure that farmers irrigate their crops with clean water. You cannot create an environment to make the people who handle your lunch wash their hands.

Of course, there are many examples of overzealous bureaucrats and regulation—and we’re reminded of these every day. Big institutions are, by their nature, often inefficient, incompetent and disrespectful of the individual. But that goes for the “private sector” as well—from the largest corporations down to the sole-proprietorships and so-called small businesses. Do you really believe the ads that claim your bank or your insurance company “cares” deeply about you?

The web has, sadly, seen an explosion of “news” sites that peddle hysteria, fear, and one-sided vilification of institutions like public agencies or public education — institutions that operate with severe handicaps but, that like Rodney Dangerfield, deserve a little respect. When the criticism is justified, WhoWhatWhy has been and will continue to be out front in documenting abuses. But we would not be doing our job if we didn’t also stand up for institutions, like the FDA in this case, that get it right.

By definition, we can’t have a functioning society unless we can agree on some things that affect us all—and then have an apparatus to carry out those agreements. We believe strongly that the government apparatus must represent us. If it does not, we seek to expose that fact. If it does, then we aim to strengthen it, make it more effective and more accountable—not to sabotage or destroy it.

 

 

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  • Mr. M

    The documentary “Food Inc.” destroys this weak argument. The FDA and USDA are run by Monsanto, as all gov’t agencies get corrupted eventually. Give me the independent, unregulated local farmer any day over “Tyson Foods, but regulated by gov’t.”
    Not your usual level of commentary, and oddly sycophantic to an organization whose corruption and malfeasance you so thoroughly exposed.

    • NMHiker

      I also recommend “Genetic Roulette.”

      • CQ

        So do I.

        I’d also like to point out that there’d be no contamination issues or need to clean manure-laden crop water if consumers didn’t eat meat. Regulators and Big Ag and Chem and Pharma may be in cahoots, but they’re simply servicing a public addicted to the flesh and the secretions of innocent animals.

        • http://www.facebook.com/danrt2 Dan Thompson

          You clearly don’t know very much about raising crops. Your comment is just another example of why the vegetarian/vegans argument gets no traction. Blowing raw sewage onto vegetable crops will absolutely contaminate you, and everything else it touches. Hence the countless e. coli outbreaks over the past 20 years.

          The fact is, local agriculture by smallholders – including the raising of livestock – is the most sustainable and healthy option.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1278300472 Edward Rynearson

      TEPCO

    • closetothetruth

      the documentary is excellent. but how do you intend to ensure that the air, water, and soil used by your “independent, unregulated farmer” will be clean and unpolluted without government there to regulate the Monsantos of the world? Absence of government is the same thing as regulatory capture/corruption: it lets the most concentrated sources of capital and power do exactly what they want. You already can’t isolate yourself from that by only using local sources (as if that were possible) and with even less regulation that would be even more true.

  • Nathan Johnson

    “You cannot make sure that a food processor keeps bacteria-contaminated uncooked foods away from prepared foods. You cannot ensure that farmers irrigate their crops with clean water…”
    Yes you can. You can choose to buy food that is approved by a private inspection agency. Getting to choose this agency is much better than relying on the current gov’t monopoly/buerocracy, who looses nothing (or grows even bigger) if they screw up.

  • gogetem1

    The FDA, like other federal institutions seems to have a mixed bag of a track record. As Russ says, it plays a big part in keeping food safe in general, but on the other hand, it passes Aspartame onto the market by corrupt officials that have been through the “revolving door”.

    • NMHiker

      I agree. For one, Michael Taylor- the FDA’s food safety czar- is a former lobbyist and VP of Monsanto. Confict much?

    • d b

      Yes, but without the FDA nothing would stop Aspartame, it would have hit the market a lot sooner,

  • Major Martin

    The increasingly widespread phenomenon of “regulatory capture” by corporations has contributed to the increasing distrust of big government. I agree that laws and regulations are necessary but the problem today is ensuring that existing laws and regulations are actually enforced.

    Attorney General Eric Holder is one of the most obvious examples of how politicians appoint people who agree NOT to enforce the laws. The phenomenon of “too big to jail” financial institutions has been made possible by such high-level corruption. Then there’s all the 9-11 shenanigans and associated war profiteering!

    Unless we citizens find a way to restore the rule of law, the libertarian philosophy will win the day, which is unfortunate because the so-called private sector is really the source of most government corruption.

  • Tam

    A little off topic, but your last sentence makes me think of how creepy it was today to read the accounts of law enforcement officers around the country saying they will refuse to enforce any federal laws for gun control. Since when do individual officers get to choose which laws they want to enforce? A good example of sabotage (or even treason?) instead of constructive action.

    • http://www.facebook.com/teace.snyder Teace Snyder

      It’s about state versus federal law. The constitution stipulated that state law take precedent to federal law to keep the federal government in check/from becoming so monolithic and detached from the will of it’s people that it no longer listened to what they had to say (which is basically what’s happened, except that they listen to corporations and financial interests, making the US an oligarchic corporatocracy).

      The recourse to this, in a legal framework, is the 10th amendment, which gives states a way to unshackle themselves from unjust laws imposed upon them in violation of the constitution by the federal government. This is where sheriffs who are saying ‘screw this shit’ are primarily coming from and from a legal standpoint it makes perfect sense. Problem is, a lot of people out there who are anti-10th amendment like to point to previously absurd attempts to use it in questionable ways such as to ratify slavery. But, essentially, the 10th amendment is in there because the founding fathers new that the consolidation and abuses of power could grow so large that they would threaten the very freedoms a federal government supposedly upholds for it’s citizens. Smart dudes.

    • KGB

      It’s about the jurisdiction of authority. States and Sheriffs (are supposed to) supersede the Federal Government – States grant authority to the Federal Government, not the other way around, hence “We The People…” instead of “We the Government…”.

  • Kevin

    Social security and medicare are both broke. They are a big part of our ENORMOUS national debt. Also airports, security and education?!? The TSA is an abomination and our education system is a train wreck. Is there any conceivable reason why, with modern technology, education shouldn’t be MUCH better than it used to be at a fraction of the cost?? As for unemployment insurance, if you pay people not to work, you’ll end up w/ more people not working. Why can’t working people buy *private* unemployment insurance?

    There’s a saying about socialism being good until you run out of other people’s money.

    Russ, I think you need to listen to more free market approaches to things. Check out Peter Schiff sometime.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1278300472 Edward Rynearson

      the value of money is controlled by those who control its quantity

    • d b

      Kevin,
      SS is not broke, it has reserves for the next 20 years or so; would be solvent indefinitely if the cap on FICA taxes would be eliminated. This is a democracy and the vast majority of the public wants to keep SS; nothing wrong with that.

      • Kevin

        SS is broke. That’s why when the debt ceiling debate comes up they mention “seniors won’t get paid SS”. The SS trust fund is BROKE. All of the money was replaced by treasuries (which are IOUs and ones which will lose SIGNIFICANT value when interest rates rise – which they will, and dramatically so). SS is a ponzi scheme. People can only receive payments with new money coming into the system. Check this out on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddsPImROo_c

        As for “This is a democracy and the vast majority of the public wants to keep SS”, the US is NOT a democracy. We are a constitutional republic. In the pledge of allegiance do you say “…and to the democracy for which it stands…” or “…and to the republic…”? Democracy is the equivalent of “mob rule” and was viewed (correctly IMO) by our founders as evil. The idea of a republic is to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.

        • d b

          Kevin, the point you made is that the federal government is broke, not SS is broke. The federal government must repay all its IOUs including those in the SS trust fund.

        • Kevin

          If the government can’t afford to pay the IOUs that SS needs to survive then, for all practical purposes, isn’t SS broke? I guess the Fed can print money but then there’s a loss of purchasing power due to the rising prices caused by inflation of the money supply. There’s no getting around it. Our country is broke and will default (in one way or another) on its obligations. That includes SS.

        • d b

          Kevin, the word “democracy” is commonly used to represent any government controlled by the people whether a “republic” or a town hall meeting “pure democracy.” Didn’t you know that?

        • Kevin

          I didn’t know that but I guess it’s just a case of semantics then.

        • Kevin

          On second thought, you wrote “This is a democracy and the vast majority of the public wants to keep SS; nothing wrong with that.”

          Doesn’t that go along with the “majority rules” definition of “democracy”?

        • d b

          Kevin,
          SS is not a “Ponzi scheme.” It is a government program in which it takes in tax money and pays it out later as retirement (and other) benefits. Unlike a Ponzi scheme, SS has never said it’s investing your money and paying your earnings back later. Didn’t you know that?

  • Jimmy

    You can definitely make pragmatic arguments for or against Big Brother (e.g., your FDA example, or conversely social security/medicare as broke ponzi schemes). But the more principaled argument is to ask, “Is this authorized in the Constitution?” If I don’t find it in Article 1 section 8, those legislative decisions should be left to individual states (10th amendment). If a power is not explicitly given to the President (like going to war) they can’t exercise that authority.

  • Gus

    The best assurance of quality goods and services (food, roads, education etc.) at the lowest cost is to allow the free market to run without government intervention. It doesn’t take much research to understand that such regulating bodies as the FDA, EPA and ED function mainly as protectors of the major corporations and institutions from competitors. The FDA and major pharmaceutical companies are partners in crime in guaranteeing the high cost of drugs and preventing the usage of natural products. To claim that the free market is unable to provide quality products is another way of saying that consumers are incapable of acting rationally in ther own self-interest.

    Today the American economy functions in a reactionary fashion to government policy, rather than to the demand of the consumer, which causes a misallocation of resources and a lack of innovation. Government chooses which sector of the economy to subsidize and the cost goes up accordingly. Do you really think that college tuition would be so high if there was no government aid? Given modern technology, college tuition should be dropping but let me break down the process which is preventing that from happening.

    Step 1: Government provides financial aid for students
    Step 2: Tuition costs rise proportionate to amount of aid
    Step 3: College campuses, faculty salary, and student debt grow in unison
    Step 4: Colleges require more money to maintain the increased operation costs and tell students to get out and vote for more financial aid. Return to Step 1.

    • d b

      Gus,
      I don’t think you’ve read your history. There was a time when people bought and ate contaminated meat, when the air in Pittsburgh was black with soot, when no fish could live in Lake Erie because of the pollution. The free market did not correct those conditions, it created those conditions.

  • Rip

    Okay! So MOST government is bad! Rip Van Winkle

  • d b

    Russ,
    Great article. Not all governement acts are good, and not all government acts are bad. Voters must evaluate each issue separately. Similarly, not every Republican, Democratic or Obama policy is good or bad. Each citizen must consider each issue separately.

  • Ghost

    I agree with the point Russ is making, all government definitely is not bad, but I think the FDA was a poor choice of example. If you watch Burzyinski – Cancer is Serious Business (free on YouTube), you’ll see how insanely corrupt the FDA is.

  • John Loftus

    Nice to hear from a grown up for a change. Down with the Echo Chamber!

  • Socrates

    The problem is not the government in D.C. Those stooges are merely tools of the international bankster elite. The problem is the finance, war, extractive, and agribusiness elite that owns the government in D.C. If we had a democracy, government would serve us people, instead of channeling our earnings to the trilionaires.

  • Mark in Boston

    Russ, this is a bit of a straw man argument. There really is no “All Government is Bad Movement.” Even within the Libertarian party and Ron Paul movement, the “all government is bad” constituency is in the minority. However, there most definitely is a growing “BIG Government is Bad” sentiment directed mostly at the federal govt., and in my opinion, rightly so. Our federal govt. is out of control, as are the governments in some of the larger industrialized states. Yes, it does some good things. But certainly the federal govt. doesn’t need to be as big as it is and incur as much debt as it does to redistribute our medicare and unemployment tax payments, hire scientists to monitor and help safeguard our food supply or protect our national parks. It does need to be as big as it is to develop and create monstrous amounts of weaponry and fight and arm multiple theaters of wars and pay for the consequences, or create an enormous spy machine capable of spying on every person and household pet in America and soon, around the world, if they have their way. So IMO the more pertinent question is whether “big” government is bad, not whether all govt. is bad. Big government and its relationship with international corporate cartels in industry and finance is squeezing us dry and people know it and they are pissed. And “the government” has not only exceeded the bounds of necessity in its size and scope, but with the introduction of torture and the immorality of the wars (properly read invasions) we’ve imposed, along with legalizing political assassination, it has crossed moral lines draw by the architects of the US Constitution.

    There are some really important questions that need to be part of our public dialogue and my observations of our “leaders” (and the “controlled” media) is that they are dodging those questions and obfuscating the discussion. To me that’s borderline criminal, especially considering the moral implications of our imperialist behavior and the long term quality of life consequence for our citizens.

    Al Capone started the first American soup kitchen and was a
    philanthropist to many on the streets of Chicago. So was he a good guy who did some bad things or was he a bad guy who did some good things? Does it matter? He certainly fed more people than he hurt or killed. I think most of us agree it does matter.

  • Bill Barasky

    Emerson may have said those words, but that is in response to namely statesmen and philosophers not being able to consider alternative ideas. Most of our political ideas are recycled ideas. Big government vs. small government is an old argument, however government vs. no government is a seldom considered idea. To cast it aside and immediately claim it has no place in our society without listening to the retorts of its supporters seems small minded… Emerson may in fact be referring to the likes of Russ Baker, unwilling and incapable of considering any alternatives to what he is used to dealing with because it makes him feel uncomfortable. This is to be expected of most people however, it is the human condition to resist change, it makes us feel like we will lose the safety which our current environment provides for us.

    I am a big fan of whowhatwhy. I just hope they do not turn into one of the ” sites that peddle hysteria, fear, and one-sided vilification”, which is indefensibly the goal of this opinion piece.

    George Washington said “Government is not reason, nor eloquence. It is force. And like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearsome master.”

  • Dave Fryett

    “By definition, we can’t have a functioning society unless we can agree
    on some things that affect us all—and then have an apparatus to carry
    out those agreements.”

    What Russ calls “government” I call administration. Nobody, with the possible exception of the Prims [anarcho-primitivists], is advocating that! As the seminal anarchist theoretician Peter Kropotkin stated, the goal of anarchism is to reach that stage where governance no longer is the manipulation of people but becomes the administration of systems. Russ’ quote above entirely misstates the issue: Governments do not carry out our agreements, if it is our will that is to be done there would be no need for government. Governments govern! They divide the world into rulers and ruled. They impose their will, or more accurately the will of the plutocrats whose agents they are. The state exists to suppress the popular will, not implement it. Our present situation in America demonstrates this unmistakably: We are at war everywhere; our civil liberties have been restricted by the Patriot Act and other oppressive legislation; collective bargaining and other worker rights are going up in flames; our government is leading the way in undermining anti-pollution standards. According to the polls I’ve seen, each of these things is unpopular with Americans, in varying degrees. Governments rule, and we obey or suffer the consequences. We can have a government, or we can have freedom and democracy.

    As part of the government’s post-OWS smear campaign, a Democratic Party wonk wrote something very similar to this piece from Russ. I hope that people who agree with these pro-government sentiments will take the time to read my response:

    http://www.opednews.com/articles/On-the-Appeal-of-Anarchism-by-Dave-Fryett-120918-538.html

  • wtpayne

    It is not big government that is bad per-se, it is large, long-lasting organizations of all sorts, from “too-big-to-fail” banks to “too-big-to-fail” government departments and agencies.

    A healthy ecosystem (economic or biological) requires a diversity that arises from an effective death-and-renewal cycle.

    Organizations that are too large or too long lived thwart that process, and “bake-in” inefficiencies and corruption. This is as true for private sector organizations as it is for public sector organizations.

    Large, long-lived organizations (of all sorts) are the weeds that strangle economic growth.

    • wtpayne

      This is really just the Peter Principle in action…

  • Duuuuuuuuuuude

    “We believe strongly that the government apparatus must represent us. If it does not, we seek to expose that fact. If it does, then we aim to strengthen it, make it more effective and more accountable—not to sabotage or destroy it.”

    A respectable sentiment – too bad that government itself almost habitually seeks to hide inconvenient facts and insulate itself from accountability. A reasonable person might conclude that it’s better to assume a risk oneself than to blindly trust an agency whose internal agenda seems to conflict with its’ purported mission.

  • Anonymous

    all this while they wash their hands on farms there is a monopoly on medicine that there are no laws preventing some cheaply made medicines are so expensive people die and that is because of corporate greed and control. what about regulations that have our children take vaccinations? recent studies have shown these vaccinations carries cancer cells, aids virus, and h1n1 virus many times causing autism in children (which is suppressed information while they poison us more and more.)

    shall we continue? we worry right now about a financial crises even a depression of sorts -did you know that the audit of the federal reserve show that 14 trillion dollars were missing! can you even fathom that amount of money unaccounted for in our nations own treasury — and what is done about it? who is to blame? or do we turn a complete blind eye while families are starved because of the concessions of the greed rich.

    there is so much more — much much much more that if you aren’t paying attention then just move out of the way while those of us who do notice do something about it!

  • http://twitter.com/mijj mijj

    the idea of what is “government” needs to be generalized to be realistic.

    Whatever organization has power to control your freedom to act is “government”. It could be the local street gang or mafia or it could be any number of control-crazy corporations.

    Are there controls on the quality of corporate products and actions to protect the public? If the corps have sufficient power then they control the elected government and subvert those controls. Ie. the corporations govern the government.

    Before a cap is put on the power (relative to the individual) of representative government, a cap on the power of any organization (relative to human-representative government) needs to be in place. Otherwise we all just end up as slaves in service to an organized elite.

  • James Madison

    A lot of commenters have said the Constitution says state law supersedes federal law, citing the 10th amendment. That’s point blank wrong.

    The 10th amendment only says powers not reserved for the federal govt fall to the states. The “supremacy” clause in the Constitution states explicitly that the Constitution and federal laws passed by Congress as well as treaties supersede state laws. It’s simple: The states that existed that ratified the Constitution and any state that joined the Union thereafter agreed that the Constitution and federal laws would be “the supreme law of the land.”

    The supremacy clause in the Constitution reads:

    “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”

    The 10th Amendment reads:

    “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    One of the powers given to the federal government by the Constitution is the power of Congress to pass federal laws.

  • banger

    It’s really a tough call. As a social democrat, I hesitate to favor libertarian causes. But our government is both illegitimate and deeply corrupt and mainly uses legislation to help the oligarchs as any fool knows. We are under no obligation to do anything other than resist a government that seized power in 1963, eliminated all opposition in 1968 and destroyed what was left of the Republic in 2001.

    On the other hand, though government mostly limits competition and guarantees “money for nothing” to the corporate oligarchy, it still does some important work as Russ points out. It’s a tough call but I think the direction we need to go in is to create private networks as much as we can as we transition to a more chaotic situation.

  • http://twitter.com/polfilmblog Political Film Blog

    The anarchists tend to be confused, misguided and adept at wrecking every promising looking social movement that springs up. On anarchism: http://joegiambrone.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/on-anarchism/

  • Robert

    EVERYTHING bad in the world CAME from government.

    Guess what was in cigarettes before your beloved FDA got involved? Nope. Tobacco.

    Guess how many wars we would have been in had government remained small? Nope. None.

    Also had it not been for your beloved government the atom wouldn’t gotten split and the genie would have remained where it belonged.

    Guess how many native American Indians your Yankee Puritan government slaughtered?

    Nothing you list as an accomplishment by government matches all the ills it has created.

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