Noble: Our government is what we make it

“Government is the problem.” Those words, uttered by President Ronald Reagan 38 years ago, are now Republican dogma. There is just one problem — that pithy phrase used to bash the government is taken out of context.

What Reagan really said was, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The crisis he was referring to was stagflation and recession. An argument could be made as to whether or not his assessment was accurate, but he was most assuredly not throwing the entire federal government under the bus.

Inept government is now so pervasive a sentiment that even liberals join in the chorus. On the Sept. 13 broadcast of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the conversation turned to the Democratic presidential candidates’ plans regarding health care. Maher shuddered at the mention of “Medicare for All” and the prospect of the government taking over one-sixth of the economy.

If our government is so bad, why do so many other governments around the world reference, borrow or copy our regulations, policies and agencies? Consider the following examples:

Rohn Robbins’ informative column on the genesis of Miranda rights reminded me of a forgotten but darkly humorous story out of China, where it was discovered that police in the northern Chinese city of Fushun were informing apprehended suspects of their right against self-incrimination —effectively Mirandizing them. It may have been spoken in Mandarin, but the words originated in America, “You have the right to remain silent …” Unfortunately, Beijing was not amused and brought this isolated experiment in criminal justice reform to a swift conclusion.

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While living in Hong Kong, I frequently came across pharmaceutical advertisements in the South China Morning Post that referenced FDA approval — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, not a Chinese equivalent. Many countries are too small and have too few resources to fund and staff the scientific laboratories necessary to test and evaluate medicine, so they trust the U.S. government to do it for them.

Similarly, when I attempted to get birth information on my grandfather from the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin I was told to submit a Freedom of Information request. Setting aside my outrage that I was asked to submit an FOI request for a birth that occurred in 1874, I was intrigued about the origins of the Irish FOI law. The U.S. Freedom of Information Act went into effect in 1967. The first Irish version was passed in 1997 and an updated version went into effect in 2014. Coincidence, or the sincerest form of flattery?

There is so much more: The U.S. was the first government to pass consumer protection laws such as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the creation of the Federal Trade Commission in 1914, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in 1933. In each case, the U.S. was ahead of the rest of the world, often by decades. Many countries would eventually follow suit, no doubt relying on the U.S. laws for inspiration and as templates. Our laws and government agencies have spawned offspring throughout the world.

I get it — there is no shortage of anecdotes about poor service at the hands of cumbersome bureaucracies. My experience with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Arlington, Virginia, felt like a hostage situation. However, most of us have also experienced poor service in restaurants and stores, but rather than malign an entire industry we instead attribute the lapse to that particular establishment. All DMVs are not bad. DMVs I visited in Texas and Colorado were models of fast, friendly service.

The fact is that most Americans are educated in government schools, fly on government-inspected aircraft, camp in government-owned forests and drive on government-funded interstates. To say government is the problem is to view it as something separate from the citizenry.

“Government of the people, for the people, by the people,” as Abraham Lincoln eloquently observed, means the people and the government are inseparable. We own those forests, we elect school boards to oversee those schools and we elect representatives to allocate funds for those roads.

Government is not the problem, it is a tool for collective action. Our government is what we make it. As the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre observed, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”

Claire Noble can be found online at and “Claire Noble Writer” on Facebook.

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