Asking the right questions about government
A few days ago I ran into my fellow columnist Dr. Swickard at Toucan Market in Las Cruces. We had a pleasant conversation — baskets of produce and gluten-free cake mix in hand — during which he relayed the story that he tells in his most recent post about not getting his insulin needles.
He also was kind enough to invite me to visit his morning radio show, which I declined because my thoughts are best explored when I get to revise rather than when I’m forced to improvise.
With this conversation fresh in my head, I read his recent claim that government is “destroying the country” because, in the most literal reading of his column, his pharmacist refused to give him insulin needles.
According to his column, Dr. Swickard argues that, for the past half century or so, Americans have been turning to government to solve all of their problems. The latest emanation of this degradation of personal responsibilities has been the most recent health care reforms, which are the reason that the pharmacist refused to give him his needles.
Since I’m concerned that diabetics cannot get the needles they need to apply their insulin treatments, I called the Walgreen’s pharmacy on El Paseo in Las Cruces to ask in what cases I wouldn’t be sold insulin needles. I took notes while we talked. Here’s how it went:
“Can I buy needles for insulin?” I asked.
“It’s up to the pharmacist on duty at the time; otherwise, you need a prescription,” the pharmacist’s assistant said.
“So I need a separate prescription for my needles?” I asked.
“Umm, technically,” she said. “Usually they’ll just sell them to you.”
“Is this a new protocol?” I asked. “Needing a prescription for needles?”
“No,” she said. “Most pharmacists will just sell them to you.”
I don’t know about Dr. Swickard’s particular situation, but it sounds like, in most cases, the government is not interfering with diabetics getting their needles. Rather, a few pharmacists insist on a prescription for the needles, which may not be such a bad idea.
Furthermore, it sounds like the pharmacist was not applying a new rule that had anything to do with the recent health care reforms.
I can understand why Dr. Swickard might make the correlation between his situation and the passage of the health care reform, especially considering all of the talk from Beck and Palin types about death panels and rationed care. We are primed to look for such things. Still, as my composition students and I discuss often, there’s a big difference between correlation and causality.
But this isn’t really about insulin needles
This is about the proper role for government in our society. Dr. Swickard’s column suggests that government has only been destructive to American prosperity. I just don’t think the facts bear that out.
A few examples of how our lives have been improved by pooling our resources through government action:
- Thanks to basic government research, Americans are living better and longer than ever before. Because we the people — through the pooled resources that we call the government — invest in research colleges, nonprofit organizations like the March of Dimes and research hospitals, we’ve been able to support the discovery of vaccines for diseases like polio and improve the quality of life for people who are suffering from other diseases like AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and — yes — even diabetes.
- Government investment in basic science has led to many innovations that both improve our quality of life and also are the building blocks for entrepreneurs and businesses. An obvious example is government investment in the computer chip, which led to the personal computer. Also, government development of the Internet has been an undeniable boon to not only entrepreneurship and consumer choice but to the spread of democracy itself, as we’ve seen the impact of social media in Egypt and elsewhere.
- Government investment in basic infrastructure like the interstate highway system has not only allowed for businesses to transport and receive goods from all over the country and our neighbors to the north and south, but has also allowed for people who can afford it to move from town to town and back again safely, freely and easily.
- Government investment in emerging industries has spurred innovation in the United States. Starting with the transition from lighting the streets with whale blubber to investing in the pipelines to move petroleum, the government has provided a useful helping hand for industries that benefit everyone.
- Government acts as a stabilizing force for our financial markets and a safeguard for individual investors through protections like those provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
- Governmental regulatory boards like the Environmental Protection Agency secure our rights to breathe clean air and drink safe water. The Food and Drug Administration screens everything from prescription drugs to toys to make sure that the things we buy don’t kill us.
- Our military has been the driving force behind some of the most meaningful efforts in history to secure freedom, such as World War II.
- Our firefighters and police allow for a degree of public safety enjoyed by few other countries. There can be little doubt that this is a boon to commerce and entrepreneurship, not to mention liberty.
- Government has fulfilled its constitutional mandate to continue to “secure the blessings of Liberty” to all Americans by securing rights — from voting to freedom of speech, religion, and peaceable assembly — for all people, regardless of gender or ethnicity. On this point, as in all of the above, our record has been imperfect, and much work remains to be done.
The above list is merely representative (not exhaustive) of what we have accomplished through the government. To me, it is hard to defend the position that government has been largely destructive to the success of our American experiment.
A more perfect union
According to the preamble of the Constitution, the people of the United States have empowered the government to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” To me this indicates that the founders intended that the government would play a large role in building a more perfect union.
I agree with Dr. Swickard that “cradle-to-grave” government is not a viable solution for our problems. But, it’s equally inaccurate to say that government is at the root of all our problems.
I propose that we move our discussions beyond assuming that government contributes nothing — it’s just not factual. Let’s not forget that some of our earliest national debts accumulated because the federal government took over the debts that our states incurred during the Revolutionary War. The price of a free society has long been borne by government.
Instead, we need to discuss how to optimize and administer a government that is charged by the founders — and empowered by the people — with securing justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty.
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