Sometimes government is the solution

We need government — and not just when disaster strikes

For more than three decades we have lived with the mantra that “government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”

Those lines came from President Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address in 1981, and since then it has been fashionable to bash government, no matter where you stand on the political divide.

For those leaning right, it’s usually about taxes that are too high, gun rights that are too restrictive and regulations that strangle business development. On the left, it’s often protesting about government that interferes with women’s health care (as in abortion), spends too much tax money on the military and implements drug laws that are too harsh.

Of course, this is an oversimplification of the views of all sides and the historic debate about the role of government in the lives of its citizens. My point is we all have a line we don’t want government to cross, and we want limits when it touches the dogmas we personally hold dear.

And it’s a line that malleable, especially when disaster strikes.

You may favor small, limited government, but few people don’t want the Federal Emergency Management Agency riding to the rescue when torrential rains and floodwaters deluge a city like Harvey did in Houston.

Who doesn’t want the help of FEMA and the Coast Guard when a massive hurricane blows in like Irma did this past week in Florida? Or who doesn’t want federal help when the forest surrounding your community in the northwest burns like the fires of hell?

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack, most of us were grateful for the emergency workers who dug through the rubble of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon to rescue survivors. And most of us are still grateful for the men and women who continue keeping us safe here at home.

We’re shortsighted when we only appreciate the power of government when disasters happen.

Without a good interstate highway system — paid by our taxes and administered by state and federal agencies — the people of Florida wouldn’t have been able to flee the path of Irma. It takes more taxes and government to maintain that system, both here in our Indiana communities and across the country.

Strong zoning laws and building standards can protect our homes and communities from the very worst nature can unleash on us. That means leaving green space and wetlands to absorb heavy rainfall or building structures to remain standing in a earthquake when you live in those zones.

Flooding in Houston was so severe, in part, because so much of the city has been paved over, leaving rainfall nowhere to go. Strong zoning and building codes won’t stop disasters like Harvey, but they can help lessen the impact.

The president and Congress have begun work to simplify our federal tax code and, as always, they are focused on reducing taxes for most Americans. Let’s remember that the government we want to protect our savings from lawless bankers, our workers from careless employers, our safety from threats at home and abroad, and our infrastructures from crumbling beneath us, we need government and tax money to pay for it.

It’s also important to remember that President Reagan wasn’t mindlessly bashing government in his first inaugural address. First, he was speaking in reference to the mess the economy was in with high unemployment and even higher inflation.

And second, this is what Reagan said next:

“Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”

Better yet, though, is how our nation’s founders framed the role of government in the preamble to the Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Good words to remember in these times.

Janet Williams is editor of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].