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Wealth and Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Clay Wilson, Jr.
December 3, 2018

Conservatives and liberals both assert that the United States is a rich country, and that this is a good thing, even if they have trouble finding much to agree about. Perhaps the notion of a rich country deserves some thought, since being one seems to be important across the political spectrum.

Being rich is not an end in itself, but a means to material well-being. Rich people are not necessarily happy or healthy, but they possess the means to enjoy material abundance. Above all other things, the rich don’t need to worry about not having enough money. In many ways personal wealth constitutes the absence of a negative, the negative of being too poor to meet basic economic needs and expectations.

At the rich end of the economic spectrum, there seems to be no amount of personal wealth that constitutes enough. The richest people in the world continue to pursue more, independent of how much they have already attained. Publications around the world list the world’s richest people in the order of their wealth and take note of who has risen and who has fallen since the last iteration. The lifestyles of the people on these lists inform the rest of us as to what people do when there are unconstrained in their ability to buy whatever they want.

We primarily think of wealth, then, as something possessed by individuals. Organizations and governmental entities possess wealth too, of course, and can also be ranked in terms of how much money they have at their disposal. But we don’t perceive connections between our personal well-being and the wealth of organizations, including the financial wherewithal of the cities, counties and states where we live, much less that of the federal government.

In the United States, the point of being a rich country is to enable the private pursuit of wealth. Belief in and dedication to the “rags to riches” theme for individuals has long been fundamental to our identity as a nation. The freedom to pursue wealth is a core freedom, even though it has never been separately identified as such. Accordingly, we see taxation and government spending as activities that subtract from personal wealth and thereby work against people seeking to improve their material well-being.

Over the course of the past century, however, the material well-being of people almost everywhere has been transformed, as 85-90% of the human population has escaped from the abject poverty of human history. This didn’t happen because people suddenly started working harder.

This vast improvement in human material well-being is the product of human learning. We learned what caused disease and illness and hugely reduced their toll. We learned how to treat sewage and provide clean water and clean air. We learned how to produce vastly more food, how to produce vast quantities of energy, how to quickly get from here to there, how to manufacture vast quantities of goods and provide vast arrays of services, and on and on. In an astonishingly short period of time the material well-being of our species has radically improved.

Even so, when we look at the world country by country we see hugely uneven application of these life-improving measures.  We also see a self-evident common denominator that directly correlates with degrees of success achieved. That common denominator is government.

We don’t know how to solve every human problem, but we know perfectly well how to attain and promote public health on a hitherto unimagined scale, how to achieve material well-being on a hitherto unimagined scale, how to educate on a universal scale, and a great many other things. But we can’t capitalize on this knowledge in the absence of government that enables these gains. Good government isn’t the only requirement, of course, but it is, everywhere and always, the essential foundation.

Given the role governments have played in transforming the human condition over the past century, our contemporary disdain for government is a curious thing. It is an incontestable fact that it is impossible to have a decent society or country without decent and sufficient government. Even the staunchest believers in the power of markets to improve the human condition know that, absent sound currencies and rule of law, just to note two essential products of government, market forces are of little avail.

Our concept of wealth as something we possess as individuals is profoundly incomplete. Our health, longevity, education, ability to earn income and a host of other attributes, including the impacts of war and peace, are shaped by governments past and present. Catastrophes around the world remind us of this truth over and over again. Establishing and preserving decent and effective government is the single most essential of all activities insofar as human well-being is concerned.

Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management, Melvin & Leigh, Publishers, Irvine, California, 2016. Mr. Wilson is also a columnist for PA Times and Governing.com. 

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