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ETpro's avatar

What should the US Federal Government handle, and what should it not do?

Asked by ETpro (34557points) August 13th, 2011

I notice that in discussions of politics here, disputes often center around what should and shouldn’t be the concern of the federal government. Clearly, many things are the business of each one of us private citizens. I don’t want any government telling me whether I prefer coffee or tea in the morning. Some things can’t be done by individuals but are are best left to private enterprise. Some things are best handled by local government. Some are rightfully state government issues. Police agencies probably are needed at the local, state and federal level because crime occurs at all those levels. Local police could never do the job of the FBI or the CIA.

Let’s not try here to assign everything that needs to happen to its particular slot, be it citizen, corporation, city, state, or federal. Let’s just deal with what really makes good sense to do at the federal level, and what should be left to one of the other levels. Please discuss why you feel that a given responsibility should be handled at the national level, or why you feel one that is now a federal responsibility should not be the federal government’s concern.

I’m not looking for mindless ideological statements like Reagan’s, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” nor Karl Marx’s, “The meaning of peace is the absence of opposition to socialism.” I’m looking for reasons a particular activity needs to be at the national level, or should not be there.

If you think the federal government should provide for the common defense, why do you think so? If you think we should privatize all federal prisons, why? If you think public education should not be locally run but should be a federal responsibility, why?

I sincerely hope that by discussing our reasons for the policy directions we support, we can better understand one another’s politics. Too often in political debates, we seem to end up talking past each other because we assume that our personal ideas about governmental responsibility are shared by all, or at least by all who are sane and not out on some political extreme. I hope we can keep the discussion civil. It’s OK to disagree agreeably, but there is no need to vilify someone simply because they do not share your particular viewpoint. Just state your case as rationally as you can, and let it stand or fall on the merit of the facts you present in support of it.

I am really looking forward to what I may learn from the ensuing discussion.

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12 Answers

Pandora's avatar

I think government should butt its business out of drug trials when the patient is on deaths door and is hoping for a hail mary.
Especially when the drug is something that may have been approved or already being tried in other countries and shows little or no side effect.
Many times cures have been already tried in other countries but the FDA prevents them from being tried on people here for a number of years that some people just don’t have. I think they should have a say in what they are willing to risk for a cure. If I’m dying and the treatment takes months but I can’t afford to get the treatmen overseas, I should have the right to decide. Its my life, not theirs. Especially if my condition already comes with a death sentence.
Sometimes there are cures somewhere else. And by the time it goes through all the red tape here, hundreds die.
I understand if its a cure for an ailment that isn’t life threatening. But that rule should not apply to things known to cause death. Whats the worst that can happen. You die sooner? If that is the risk than the patient should be made aware and it left up to them. Or maybe they will get a rash. I don’t think they will want their money back if they get cured but end up with a rash.

Jaxk's avatar

We started out as a collection of states that banded together for our common defense. In banding together we also gave the government the power to insure free unrestricted interstate commerce. An idea not much different than the EU. We based the notion of a federal government on common ideals outlined in the bill of rights. They defined what our government could not do. We’ve drifted a long ways from these original ideas.

We have forgotten that the States were sovereign governments. And if you compare our states to other countries they compare quite well in size, population, and Gross product. In fact California has the 8th largest economy in the world. Texas has the 15th largest economy in the world. If you compare the US to the EU we compare quite well in Gross product. Some where along the line we lost track of those original ideas and forgot the the states were sovereign governments. We’ve made the subservient to federal rule.

There are obvious areas that work best for federal government control. Defense being the main one and the primary purpose of banding together in the first place. We make a lot of noise about the defense budget but if you break it down by state, it becomes very reasonable. We spend $700 billion annually on defense which works out to be about $14 billion per state. Or about the same as Taiwan, Poland, and the Netherlands. By banding together we have built the most formidable armed services the world has ever seen at a cost per state less than that of Afghanistan’s.

The other area is interstate commerce. The idea here is not to control interstate commerce but rather to insure the free flow of goods and services. In that the construction of interstate highways and railroads fit that need. Unfortunately we’ve bastardized this fundamental requirement to regulate the growing of crops for personal consumption. Wickard v. Filburn is the most egregious violation of the Interstate commerce clause I can think of.

With this in mind I would rank Federal responsibilities as follows. National defense, Interstate commerce (but only to insure the free flow of goods and services), Federal law enforcement (only for issues crossing state lines). I would include things like foriegn ambassadors in the national defense as well as intelligence operations such as the CIA. I would include some oversight of inland waterways such as the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River (among others). Other than that, I would dissolve most of the federal government. It is mostly redundant to what the states already do.

Government works best when it is local. Redundant layers at higher and higher levels not only add cost but actually deteriorate the quality and infringe on personal rights. We’ve lost track of why we formed the federal government and somehow think it can solve all our problems. It can’t. It creates more than it could ever solve. Like Frankenstein’s monster, we breathed life into this thing and now we have lost control.

ETpro's avatar

@Pandora I agree 100% with that. It’s informed risk. It’s your life. I would just want to see such legislation written in a way that prevents outright charlatans from prompting total junk medicine and profiting handsomely and legally from deliberately killing the people they duped.

ETpro's avatar

@Jaxk. No argument that common defense (against the British, the French & Indians, the Spanish and who knows who, else) was a driving factor in forming a Federal Government. The federalist papers, written by Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay; argued forcefully for a federal system, and not just to provide for the common defense. Those essays were greatly influential in the adoption of the Constitution, and take away the argument that no federal system beyond defense was ever envisioned.

Also, the Founders were wise enough to realize that what they wrote in 1776 would not remain viable for hundreds of years into the future. They could hardly have foreseen the computer age, the rise of nuclear weapons, and the threat of communism. They included constitutional methods for amending the founding document and the need presented itself. Therefore, I reject all claims that the Constitution passed in the Constitutional Convention is still the only law of the land, and that all amendments should be disregarded unless they serve the cause of a particular political movement today. There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution or Bill of rights to indicate that’s what our Founding Fathers had in mind.

I believe in the Constitution as it is written with all its amendments. I have absolutely no desire to emulate the dysfunctional EU as a form of government. If states were sovereign and above federal control,. pollution would skyrocket. The Jet Stream causes the prevailing winds to flow form West to East. If the Federal Government could not control pollution, each state would locate its most atmospherically polluting but profitable (revenue producing) industries on its Eastern border, and just require that they shut down when winds reversed and flowed into their state. This would provide an enormous economic bonanza for the states, bur mean that acid rain, burning rivers and unbeatable air were the norm across all but the West Coast. Is that something we really want just because it increases short-term profits for some businesses?

In interstate commerce, the Federal Government has an interest far above the free flow of goods from one state to another. That is to ensure that business is conducted fairly for all. Trusts cannot ne allowed to rule pricing. Monopolies are bad for consumers and bad for innovation. Deliberate manipulation such as Enron played in the rolling blackouts in California help no one but a handful of corrupt corporate bandits. Only government at the federal level can intervene when corporations are not just mu;ti-state but multinational.

I agree wholeheartedly with those things you mention as federal responsibilities. I disagree that our Constitution was intended as a static document meant to define how government should erform in `1776, and that the demands of the 21st century have no impact on that. I think that all the Amendments to the Constitution are part of it, just as our Founding Fathers intended. I am sure that as time progresses, even more changes will be necessary. So Constitution or no, I;\‘d really like to focus this discussion on what the Federal Government should tend to in this day and time, not in the 1700s, and what it should not do even today.

Jaxk's avatar


I think you misinterpreted my point. I have no issue with the amendments. But if you look through them you will find that they pertain primarily to individual rights rather bestowing any additional power on the federal government. The one deviation was was the 18th (prohibition), which didn’t work out so well and was recinded with the 21st. I didn’t say nor did I intend to say that the consitution was static. It is however the law of the country and the federal government should not be extending it’s reach beyond those powers given by the constitution.

I also reject you philosophy which seems to indicate that the federal government is the only force for good in the country. States do not dump thier pollution over state lines nor have they built factories to do so. With or without the EPA. Where do you get this stuff? States have every right to maitain they own anti-polution laws and do so.

I guess what I really object to is the idea that the constitution should be discarded because our technology has grown. And that the priciples we had are no longer relevant.

Jaxk's avatar


Due to the late hour I didn’t address your issue about monopolies or monopolistic practices. The do and are intended to affect the free flow of goods. The whole point is to drive out competition and conspire to affect the price and availability of goods or services. As such those practices fit very well under the interstate commerce clause and are one of the fundamental reasons for it.

Mariah's avatar

Knowledge of government and economics is not my strong suit, so I’m sure there are many reasons why my preferences might not be possible. But this is my “utopian” government, I guess.

I would prefer that the government not stick their nose into victimless situations. These include: who I marry or have sex with (gay and polyamorous marriage), what I choose to ingest (legal marijuana and other drugs), when I choose to die (euthanasia).

If it was found that legalizing drugs had the effect of increased national healthcare costs and decreased hospital room availability, then that would be good reason to backpedal and reinstate some limitations on that one, but I absolutely think that marijuana (a mostly harmless drug, as most reasonable people will admit) at least should be legalized. Also note that drug use ceases to be victimless if your being high impairs you on your job (wasted work hours, or worse if your job is a nurse/truck driver/etc.) or otherwise causes you to harm somebody.

I would like the government to have programs to help people who get stuck in nasty situations due to no fault of their own. Most passionately, I believe that there should be a way for any person with a chronic disease to get affordable health care in a timely manner. The fact that an insurance company can deny a person coverage due to a “pre-existing condition” absolutely disgusts me. If a person like me wants to stay off the streets and have a working body, she needs to make sure she never ever has a lapse in her insurance, which means that if she ever gets laid off (which can happen no matter how good the quality of her work is), she’s likely to end up in a rotten situation. I think it’s only right that there be backup plans in place for people in these situations and similar ones. It shouldn’t be so hard for a person to get by because she just happened to be born with a malfunctioning body, or other disadvantages.

ETpro's avatar

@Jaxk OK, we’re down to arguing cases before the Supreme court then. I would probably agree that there have been a number of decisions in recent time which read things into the Constitution that simply aren’t there, or where the Justices in their wisdom chose to not apply what’s written. I too would like that trend reversed.

I do not have a philosophy that the federal government is the only force for good. I’ve never stated such. But states most certainly have poluted waters that run immediately downstream. We had an era of acid rain that killed off massive areas of forests in the 1960s. The Cuyahoga River Fire in 1969 was the 13th time that river had caught fire since the late 1800s. Inspection of its waters and sediment showed that even sludge eating bacteria that normally thrive in pollution were absent from it. It was a toxic soup deadly to all living things. These aren’t things that might happen some day in the distant future. They are things that brought the EPA into existence. There is no sensible reason to believe that if we dismantled the EPA, such conditions would never again occur.

I am glad we agree that it’s a reasonable thing for the federal government to prevent monopolistic practices and price fixing.

Jaxk's avatar


A couple of points. First I wasn’t trying argue SCOTUS rulings but rather just showing that things can get horribly out of control when the federal government begins moving beyond it’s limits.

In trying to be brief I may have misled you on where I think the federal government has over stepped it’s bounds. If we look at the Clean Air Act (1963) or the Clean Water act (1972), I really don’t have a problem with those. We certainly didn’t need the EPA to enact those. Nor do I have a problem with Federal legislation on those issues even though the states were already legislating them. Just as Europe had gone through the same environmental awakening we had, they were also enacting similar laws to cut down on pollution. Where we screwed up is in the creation of the EPA (as well as most regulatory agencies). As it turns out, if a state tries to enact more stringent legislation that the EPA, they must be granted approval from the EPA to do so. And the EPA is not and elected body nor are they accountable for thier actions. The approval is normally routine but not always (I will provide some fodder for your arguments against Bush). I believe the states have gone too far in many cases but I’m especially alarmed by the Federal Government usurping thier authority. The EPA is not limited to issues between states but include issues within states. This Federal ability is rampant throughout government agencies. I’m sorry, they have overstepped thier bounds.

You may think that if the federal government doesn’t do it, it won’t be done. In some cases you may be right. In others, I others I would vehemently disagree. When a state creates legislation you have some impact on how that goes. Not much but more than you have at the federal level. And when we create regulatory bodies at the federal level lobbyists are the only ones that have any control. The whole process has been taken out of congress and placed in the hands of bureaucrats that don’t answer to the people and taken away from the states. That’s why I say, I would dismantle most of the federal government. Regulatory agencies would be my prime target.

The states are more responsive than you think. They don’t build factories on their border (actually they don’t build them at all) just so pollution will flow down stream or down wind. They pass legislation with an eye to both the general public and the economic consequences (not California but most states). A more reasonable response from the Federal government may have ameliorated the drought and unemployment in the central valley of California. And since it was totally within California, they should have no say.

ETpro's avatar

@Jaxk Thanks for expounding on your thoughts regarding the EPA and other such federal regulatory agencies. I understand where your concerns lie. Some states do a very good job of protecting their environment. Others fail pretty miserably. States where industries like mining or oil production generate massive revenues often end up with lawmakers so beholden to the indutries that exploit those resources and the revenues their activity provide (not to mention the lobbying money and campaign contributions) that they do a very poor job regulating the worst of polluters. Coal mining by mountaintop removal is vastly more profitable than tunneling down to follow the viens of coal. My concern with leaving all environmental rules to states is that you end up with a hodge-podge of regulations and the best efforts of states whose electorate do care about clean air and water can be ruined by neighboring states where the worst of polluters seem to rule the state house.

But you are right, Washington can be and is bought by special interests too. In 2010, lobbyists spent $3.8 billion in Washington. Clearly, the people paying those lobbyists expect to get a good return on that sized investment. And if the EPA is bought out and turned into the Enhance Polluter-profits Agency, that’s about as bad a scenario as I can imagine.

We the people need to be vigilant in electing presidents as well as in electing legislators.

Jaxk's avatar


Thanks for the reasonable response. I will add, that we need to be concerned about the undue influence of the environmental groups that couldn’t care less about the economy as we are about the influence of the industrialists that couldn’t care less about the environment. (both points somewhat overstated)

And the problems in the central Valley of California, don’t even create a blip on the radar in Washington, while the lives and livelihood in that area are devastated. As with anything we do, it cuts both ways.

ETpro's avatar

@Jaxk On the environmental concerns, I am in complete agreement. In political matters, the right answer is often in the middle somewhere, and very rarely at either extreme.

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