Recently, a friend and I were working to identify a good short description of what progressivism is and why it matters. We came up with the following: keeping rat feces out of baby food. (More)

That’s shorthand for saying that progressivism is about using the tools of government to advance important individual and societal goals that individuals cannot reasonably achieve on their own and/or that the free market will not provide.

One hundred and seven years ago, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which exposed the horrible working and sanitary conditions in America’s meat packing industry, including the significant amount of contamination that our country’s meat supply was subjected to. There is, of course, little that individuals could do on their own to make sure that the meat they ate was not contaminated, and industry refused to act. So, pressured by public outcry generated by The Jungle and other Progressive Era muckraking, the government stepped up to help, passing the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act. A series of food safety laws have followed, vastly improving public health and making the U.S. food system one of the safest in the world. Protecting food safety remains a struggle, as Republican deregulatory zeal and industry lobbying have led to reductions in inspections and oversight, with the sequester alone projected to cause an 18% decline in food safety inspections. However, overall our government continues to do a good job protecting the safety of our food supply – in other words, in keeping rat feces out of baby food.

The food safety issue is an important one because it is a prime example of where the Republicans’ constant attacks on “government” run into reality. A second prime example, especially salient in the wake of the horrible path of death and destruction that a tornado cut through the Oklahoma City suburbs yesterday, is disaster relief and preparedness. Individuals cannot possibly be expected to deal with the full impacts of an earthquake, hurricane, or other natural disaster, and the “free” market is likely to respond to such disasters with price gouging and is certainly not going to fund rebuilding public infrastructure that is destroyed by the disaster. As such, government can and should play a primary role in ensuring that communities and people are able to survive a disaster and rebuild in its wake.

So, the question to pose to people complaining generally about how we need to get rid of “government” is what functions of government they think should be eliminated:

  • Food safety inspections and enforcement?
  • Federal environmental laws that protect our air and water quality?
  • The Safe Drinking Water Act, which ensures that the water that comes out of your tap is safe?
  • National Parks?
  • Medical care for our veterans?
  • Student loans to help people be able to afford college?
  • Our federal court system, which helps ensure that we are able to settle disputes peacefully?
  • Construction and maintenance of highways and bridges?
  • The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures your bank deposits up to $250,000 and oversees the operation of banks?
  • Consumer safety laws that protect us from cars catching on fire or baby cribs collapsing on your baby?
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates responses to natural disasters?
  • The Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health, which oversee research into diseases, help develop cutting edge pharmaceuticals, and keep outbreaks of contagious diseases in check?
  • The Food and Drug Administration, which helps ensure the safety of pharmaceuticals?

We can and should have debates over whether specific government programs should be reformed, shrunk, expanded, or eliminated, and how we improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the government programs we have. But those are not the debates we are having. Instead, since the days of President Reagan, conservatives have been able to pillory government as inherently bad, while at the same time largely avoiding proposing cuts to specific government programs that much of the public supports. And now the sequester has given conservatives their dream of cutting social spending that benefits average Americans through arbitrary, across-the-board cuts that avoid any sort of evaluation of the value of the programs being cut.

Such arbitrary, across-the-board approach to cutting government spending is dangerous for progressives because it treats government as some sort of amorphous entity, rather than focusing people on the specific programs that benefit each of us in our daily lives. If we want to turn the debate over government spending and programs around, we need to focus people back on the following fundamental question – do you want the government to keep rat feces out of the food your baby eats, or do you want to leave that up to the free market? My guess is that all but the most extreme of the hardcore conservatives would acknowledge that they would rather have the government providing such basic level of consumer safety.