“That government is best which governs least,” wrote Henry David Thoreau.
Some of our compatriots have construed that statement as an endorsement for the idea of no government at all and personal responsibility in every circumstance; most of us recognize such policy as absurd reductionism that would only lead to anarchy.
The patron saint of modern conservatism, President Ronald Reagan, convinced his base that they need only fear nine little words, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” More recently, one right-wing ideologue, Grover Norquist, advocated for a federal government so denuded of resources that it might be drowned in a bathtub.
The word “hogwash” comes to mind...
Such ideas have served, over time, to erode public confidence in our democracy’s ability to safeguard our constitutionally enumerated rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The distrust of government generated by this rhetoric has proven harmful to our social fabric.
Granted, nobody wants the government to intrude in every aspect of our private lives. Justice Louis Brandeis labeled it “the right to be left alone.” We must remember, though, that the course of human events does require us to work together from time to time to achieve the greater good for the greater number.
The events of recent weeks provide us with moral justification for our democratic republic. Imagine for a moment a world where political objection to NASA as “big government” failed to place weather satellites in orbit and that hurricanes Harvey and Irma made landfall with mere hours of warning instead of days. What do you suppose the death toll might have been in Houston or Florida?
How grave would the situation be for residents of Florida had governmental regulations not been in place that compelled new construction to withstand the force of Category 4 winds? Those unable to evacuate would have found no shelter that could not be shredded.
Just a small side wager, here, that folks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were crossing fingers and toes during Hurricane Irma and praying that the two shut-down nuclear power plants would not experience a loss of emergency power generators. Does Fukushima ring a bell?
Furthermore, consider the possibility that individuals were all simply charged with exercising their personal autonomy and that the government exercised no role in guaranteeing the public safety. How much more horrific might have been the tally of casualties during these catastrophic storms?
The winds and tides of fate conspire too frequently against us as individuals. Working collectively, we all stand a better chance. The justification for efficient government is simple. To paraphrase John Donne in “No Man is an Island,” because we are involved in humankind, any unnecessary death diminishes all of us.