What government is for

Saturday, February 26, 2011; 6:34 PM

ON THE SUNDAY Opinions page today, we publish alarms from a number of advocates for federal programs endangered by Republican budget cutting. We sympathize with many of the appeals. But we also recognize that the United States is facing a fiscal challenge that, if unaddressed, threatens U.S. prosperity and global leadership.

So how should priorities be set?

First among ours is protecting the nation and preserving the peace. For the better part of a century, the United States has been the guarantor of peace for the world, and the world is better off for it - on balance freer, more peaceful and more prosperous. America has made some terrible mistakes abroad and no doubt spends money on bases or weapons systems that it could do without. But when politicians insist that, because the U.S. budget is strained, we can't possibly keep troops in Germany, or Korea, or Afghanistan, we don't have much sympathy. America is wealthier, its economy far more able to generate tax revenue, because of the global harmony that it helps maintain - and that no other country could provide.

That harmony doesn't flow just from military power. The far smaller expenditures for diplomacy, foreign aid and democracy promotion serve U.S. interests as well as values. Cutbacks in those accounts are easy and self-defeating.

Second, government should ensure that no one goes hungry, homeless or uncared for when sick. The U.S. safety net protects old people better than children. Insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare have become popular in part by being universal; one of the hardest challenges will be to maintain political support for them while asking those can afford to do so to depend less on government.

Third, government should promote economic growth. That means maintaining ports, roads, rails, subways and airports; educating the next generation; and supporting science. But grandiose projects such as trips to Mars or high-speed rail to Las Vegas will have to wait.

Fourth, the country is better off if inequality is lessened; if all children, no matter the station of their birth, can aspire to wealth and greatness. That's why we support modest progressivity in government's finances - that it should take more from the rich to help the poor.

Finally, there are elements of a healthy, humane society that only government can provide: A safe supply of food and medicine. Clean air and water, national parks, a capital the country can be proud of. There are programs that are an obvious waste, such as subsidies for cotton or ethanol.

And then there are the nice-to-haves. Public radio and television provide levels of serious news and cultural coverage and of civility that are otherwise not prevalent in today's media. The Institute of Peace promotes some valuable research and field work. Support for the arts is an emblem of a civilized society. It's true that if Washington got the bigger, harder things right - controlling health-care costs and aiming entitlement programs at those who really need the help - there'd be enough left over for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. But as a matter of politics and fairness, some of the nice-to-haves are going to have to take a hit: There are worthy things that government is no longer going to be able to do.

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