A GOVERNMENT FOR THE PEOPLE Michael Merrill, The Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies
The theory of modern money summarized in the prior two articles is not just another perspective on the monetary system. It is also another perspective on government. In this final article, I want briefly to explore the implications of this alternative approach to government, especially as it relates to public sector workers and their unions.
According to the conventional wisdom, government is a burden that ought to be avoided rather than an advantage that ought to be embraced. Of course, even die-hard libertarians allow that some government is necessary, so long as it costs as little as possible. But generally, it is cursed. The best government, we are always taught, is the least.
The theory of modern money puts all this in a different light. Government, it helps us to see, does not just incur costs that are properly minimized. It also confers benefits that a properly maximized.
In other words, while government can be a problem, it can also be the solution. And it is up to us, as government workers, to eliminate its problems while implementing its solutions.
Let me take just one example. Everyone willingly supports government doing everything it can to ensure national security. I have been arguing here that we ought also to support the idea of government doing everything it can to ensure national prosperity.
Government should do so because it is the right thing to do. And government can do so because, as modern money theory makes plain, it has the means, the money, to make it happen.
It is simply not true that government is forced to spend only the money it receives in taxes or borrows from the moneyed. Government can meet its obligations with money that it has the power to create.
To put the point differently, government is not a wealth taker. It is a wealth maker. What’s more, the wealth it makes is not just its own. Generally speaking, people create much more wealth with the aid of government than they do without it. We don’t first become rich and then decide to form a government. First we form governments. Then and only then can we become rich.
Without a strong government that works for all, it is not possible to have a strong economy that works for all. They go together.
This important insight is actually inscribed in the preamble of the US Constitution, where “to promote the general welfare” is listed as one of the principal purposes of our federal government, along with establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, defending the nation and securing the blessings of liberty.
We need to take the idea of a duty to promote the general welfare to heart and we need to embrace it as one of the most fundamental duties of a democratic government, which properly includes both our duly-elected officials and our duly-delegated civil servants and public employees.
One of the best ways to promote the general (i.e., universal) welfare—the welfare of everyone—is to use all the necessary and proper powers of government to ensure that all those who want to work have a job; that everyone who works makes a living wage; that the sick and the aged are cared for, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered, and the weak protected.
These goals are part of the purposes of government, which properly include, as the US Declaration of Independence put the point, to secure for everyone their right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The principal purpose of these short essays has been to argue that we can afford to use the full powers of government to ensure a broadly-based prosperity. The modern money system enables the government to spend it needs to spend in order both to ensure that every citizen can enjoy a fully productive and happy life, and also to provide, at an affordable price, all the goods and services that citizens deserve.
What can those of us who agree with this point of view do to make it a more likely prospect? In particular, what can those of us who are public workers do?
We do not have to wait for others. We can start with our own understandings and practices. Public sector unionists have borrowed a model of unionism from the private sector that is inappropriate to our situation and its challenges. We can start by re-thinking who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Having satisfied ourselves on such points, we can begin to enlist others.
Private sector unions are primarily concerned with ensuring an equitable distribution of their enterprise’s revenue among all those who contributed to it. In the pursuit of such equity they often act in ways that enhance the well-being of the whole. But that is not their primary purpose. Their primary purpose is to win equity and fairness for themselves.
Public sector workers are in a different situation. As trade unionists we too are inspired by the principle that an injury to one is the concern of all.
But as public sector workers, we also have a responsibility to the public, “the all,” that goes beyond concern. An injury to the public is the direct responsibility of each and every one of us. Why? Because we don’t work FOR the government. We work for the public and ARE the government.
What then is to be done? We—and by “we,” I mean, “we public workers”—need to change the conversation, not only among ourselves but also among the general public. As a first step we can embrace a theory of government that takes its role as both a doer of good and a creator of wealth for granted.
We know first-hand that it does both, for we participate in the doing of both. But we don’t do a good enough job of explaining what we do to others.
We can do better. We need to continue to educate ourselves not only about what the government does but also about what it could do. And we need to incorporate these lessons into what we do and say. We need to lead a grassroots movement for good government. We need to reject the naysayers who insist that we can’t manage, or can’t afford, such a thing. Yes, we can! And we need to reject the doomsayers who insist that nothing will ever change or get better. Yes, it will!