There’s been a lot of talk about the role and size of government recently. Some of those opposed to Obama’s healthcare reform attempts do so because they do not believe that a “big government” is a good thing for them or for the country.

Obama himself in a recent 60 Minutes interview on CBS saw the arguments about the size of government as “what defines left and right” in the US. So the standard narrative goes something like this: Conservatives believe in small government, individual freedom and private enterprise. And Liberals believe in human rights and the maintenance of something called “the common good” that government is in charge of ensuring. Hence “big government” is a Liberal thing and small government ensures that the power of the “free market” is released. “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Ronald Reagan used to say.   

Well, after many decades of Reaganism and I would argue Reaganism taken further than Reagan himself took it, it has become self evident that some of these ideas that grew into maxims should be quietly retired.  

The 80s were the heady days of “greed is good.” Financial regulations tumbled. Unions were smashed. The social safety net that up to that point had been the accepted norm in most of the Industrialized West was being questioned and revamped in the US, Britain and then later in the decade, in Canada when the Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney came to power.

When the 90s rolled around and the Clintons came to Washington, again the question of the size of government came back on the table when Hillary attempted to reform the US health insurance system. For the remainder of the 1990s in much of the West (with the exception of the usual suspects in Europe, i.e. Sweden, France,etc…) however, it looked like Reaganism had triumphed. This was the era of Globalization and it was inevitable. Even supposedly Left-of-Centre leaders like Tony Blair accepted that definition.

“The temptation [today] is to use government to try to protect ourselves against the onslaught of globalization by shutting it out, to think we protect a workforce by regulation, a company by government subsidy, an industry by tariffs. It doesn’t work today, because the dam holding back the global economy burst years ago,” he wrote .

Well after the debacle of Enron, World Comm and more recently Lehmann Bros, Bear Stearns, AIG, Bank of America and others, after the non-action of the Bush Administration following Huricane Katrina, after 9/11, after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it is safe to say some amount of government intervention would have alleviated those crises early on and a significant amount of government involvement after the crises prevented an abject collapse. Government, it turned out was not the problem. Government actually ended up contributing significantly to the solution. Alan Greenspan that now somewhat disgraced Dean of American Finance recognized in his mea culpa in front of the US Congress that he was wrong in assuming that the self interest of the  banks would allow them to protect their own shareholders.

For individual citizens too, government plays a major role and those who deride it in effect minimize their own power to effect change in their society. After all, in democratic societies, working within the constitutions and charters that oversee our systems, we elect leaders to represent us and we are expected to keep them honest throughout their terms in office. We have that power and responsibility. If our societies were fully run by corporations as some in the Libertarian circles would have it, our power would not be dictated by the mere fact of our citizenship, but by the size of our wallet; i.e. how many widgets produced by a given corporation can we buy? how many voting shares do we have in a corporation that controls a given aspect of our existence?

So for the working stiff or even for the working rich, governments are not the enemy. And a society where they are rendered powerless makes most of the population equally powereless.