September 15, 2022

Public Service vs. Private Profit

By Glenn

Conservatives have been pretty clear about one aspect of their governing philosophy.  They say that they will run government like a business.  Liberals, however, see government as public services.  The results are dramatically different.

Liberal policies shaped American politics after the Great Depression.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt provided a role model for creating government services.  The Great Depression exposed the limits of free markets. 

During the Great Depression, unemployment reached 25%.  For two years conservative President Herbert Hoover urged Congress to keep it hands off of the economy.  Businesses were free to fail, and they did.  The economy only got worse.

FDR responded with programs that he described as “practical Christianity.”  FDR didn’t push a theology, or a set of beliefs, rather he took action.  He used the government to feed the hungry.  He used the government to employ the unemployed.  He used government to electrify and to bring phone service to rural areas.

Once the overall economy stabilized, FDR tackled institutional or systematic poverty.  He knew from research that Seniors, individuals with disabilities, widows and orphans experienced poverty more than other Americans.  He created Social Security to keep them feed, clothed and housed.

This practical Christian approach was widely popular, and FDR won reelection 3 more times.  It was so successful generation of politicians followed his example creating a GI Bill for Veterans and low cost college education for young people.

Conservatives had limited electoral and polices successes until Ronald Reagan. Reagan made a direct appeal to Southern Democrats who had previously supported the segregationist George Wallace. Reagan made vague statements about protecting traditional values, but in the context of a Civil Rights movement, Southerners heard the dog whistle.

Reagan Conservatives then set down the path of dismantling public services.  Government would be run like a business.  They defunded public transportation.  They defunded public schools. They defunded public healthcare. 

This business model spread to higher education.  Conservative politicians cut state funding.  Colleges and universities responded by raising prices to keep their doors open.  This change forced working and middle class families to take out student loans. 

This cycle has continued for the last forty years.  President Joe Biden has provided a small measure of debt relief.  We will not break the cycle until politicians stop treating government like their business.

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