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Professor's Book Defends Government

Professor's Book Defends Government

(July 19, 2000)

Those who stay away from the polls in November will be missing a crucial truth about government, says a University of California, Riverside political science professor in a new book that goes against the current "Big Government is dead" mantra held by media and politicians.

Voter apathy has been the result of buying into the notion that government growth is necessarily bad and that there is little voters can do about it, said Political Scientist Max Neiman in his book "Defending Government: Why Big Government Works." Prentice Hall published the 260-page work.

Neiman's book contends big government, far from dead, is working well. But he believes an active and informed public is the only way to keep it from becoming an oppressive, unresponsive bureaucracy.

"The disdain about government is, I think, based on misconceptions about its role in a democratic society," he said.

After all, says Neiman, wasn't it big government that gave us Social Security, the G.I. Bill that educated a generation of veterans, and some of the best publicly-funded universities in the world? Didn't big government legislate against discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and gender? Isn't it big government that enforces workplace safety and minimum wage laws?

Of course, a government that does a lot of things inevitably will do a lot of stupid things, Neiman concedes. A case in point was the recent revelations of Internal Revenue Service heavy handedness. Such practices can bolster the arguments of government critics.

But today's attacks on the public sector mistakenly advance the notion that the people have grown apart from their government, according to Neiman's book, published in January. "That notion fuels voter apathy, which, in turn, fuels the notion that government is unresponsive. It's a vicious cycle," Neiman said.

And while one vote won't do away with welfare or save Social Security, it can point the way toward greater political action and more democratic ways of doing things.

The enemies of the public sector focus on the enormity of government, and the assumption that the larger it grows, the more oppressive it becomes. That depends on how a government grows and whether people have the power to change it, Neiman wrote.

People need to make a distinction between government and governing, he wrote. In a democracy, government represents the people and policies that make a bureaucracy. Governing is the process by which individuals decide what they want to change, Neiman said. The public in a democracy, through the vote, protest, or pressure in the media, has the right and responsibility to make sure government cleans up its act when it gets heavy handed, he added.

But the assault on government over the past 25 years has taken on an antidemocratic tone, Neiman said. It's focussed on serving the interests of the prosperous and powerful at the expense of the less privileged.

Some of Neiman's examples include: Resisting proposals for mass voter registration, requiring two-thirds voter approval to increase taxes, imposing legislative term limits, and limiting industrial regulation.

"In the case of term limits, what they (government critics) say is that the public cannot be trusted to throw a rascal out of office," Neiman said. "The result is a perpetual string of political novices who are not that effective at looking after the public interest."

The best way to counter those trends is for educators such as himself to do a better job of showing how people's lives are linked to public policies and the workings of government, Neiman wrote.

But is there room for government to grow? You bet, he wrote.

Government can do more to shape what some political analysts call "industrial policy," or encouraging growth in certain industries, he said.

Homebuilders and buyers have gained from government mortgage guarantees, Neiman wrote. The aerospace, computer, and Internet sectors were born as spinoffs of massive spending on defense research and development.

Government also will need to manage global markets. This trend, Neiman wrote, will greatly affect finance, labor and the environment.

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