EWI’s David Firestein Affirms the Value of Government

News | April 09, 2012

In a time when many Americans are hostile to the role of government, EWI’s David Firestein defended government as a legitimate representative of the people, arguing that public programs ensure basic human rights and provide critical services.

Speaking at EWI’s New York Center on April 4, Firestein, EWI’s Vice President of Strategic Trust-Building and Track 2 Diplomacy, laid out a case for government in the 21st century.

Firestein maintained that the U. S. government is now being framed as separate from and often in conflict with citizens, rather than as a manifestation of the people’s will.

The simplicity of the idea that, as President Ronald Reagan put it, “the government is the problem” may help explain its longevity, Firestein said.  “Simpler arguments work far better than more complex ones … and the three-word idea that ‘government is bad’ is about as simple as you can get.”

Firestein made clear that he felt fault lay on both sides of the ideological aisle, and emphasized that he would “offer my thoughts today very much in a non-partisan spirit, because I think that the issues at issue in this discussion are more fundamental than merely partisan politics.”

Firestein pointed to a general narrative in the U.S. claiming that “there is an antithesis between the notion of government on one hand and ‘my rights’ on the other. … [that] the more the government is involved the less room there is to exercise my rights as an American citizen.” On the contrary, he argued: “It is the government that has to be empowered to defend and enforce those rights.”

Quoting Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Firestein emphasized that “taxes are the price we pay for civilization.”

Firestein maintained that the function of government extends beyond a quantifiable transfer of goods and services, also offering “justice, equality, fairness, security” that generally cannot be provided at a universal level by private enterprise.

Challenging the notion that the government must be assessed in terms of size, Firestein claimed that there is no “correct” size of government. Rather, the government is appropriately sized when citizens are satisfied by the services offered for the amount paid. “My view is that taxes are not inherently bad,” said Firestein. “Rather, their value can only be defined by what we’re getting for those taxes.”

In an effort to frame taxes and government spending as a value proposition, Firestein cited an estimate by Professor Douglas Amy of Mount Holyoke University, calculating that, in total, government provides each citizen with $27,000 in services per year. The purpose of government, he maintained, is “to find the equilibrium between the American people’s desire for a certain level of government services and their willingness, on the other hand, to pay for those services.”

Firestein concluded by arguing altering the narrative in which government is a problem rather than a solution “is what is required if we are to restore the health of our national treasury, and I would argue the health of our democracy.”