In St. Louis, where he visited an expanding auto plant owned by Chrysler, which was rescued from bankruptcy by a $1.5 billion government loan guarantee, President Reagan reminded his audience that "government was largely responsible for creating the economic mess of recent years." Apparently, the formula goes like this: all government is parasitic and pernicious; less government means more happiness; true happiness will be preceded by the elimination of all government, beginning with the federal.

But American government is really no more or less than the collective will and wisdom of a free people. Government is not some hostile, alien force to be destroyed; government is to be used and directed, as it has been so many times throughout our history, to help make Americans freer, safer and more secure.

Government produces public services that are only our purchasing collectively what only a very few of us could afford individually, things like roads and schools and police protection and playgrounds. From 1820 to today, 54 million immigrants, many with little more than the clothes on their backs and a prayer on their lips, came to the United States. Through the public service of free, universal education, most of those 54 million, and nearly all of their descendants, became literate Americans. That's government.

After World War II, in what Winston Churchill called "the most unsordid act in human history," the American people, through their government in the form of the Marshall Plan, saved war-ravaged Europe. At the same time, some 7.8 million American veterans of that war went to college on the government's GI Bill. Many of the colleges the veterans went to were publicly financed. Today, almost half the presidents and board chairmen of the Fortune 500 companies are graduates of land-grant and state colleges. More than one-third of all the living Nobel laureates graduated from government-financed public colleges.

Government, while providing the asphalt for our 3.2 million miles of road, also provides us with 14,824 public libraries. Every day, government inspects the meat we eat, the medicines we take, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Government stops floods, brings electricity, irrigates deserts and lands airplanes. Because we have asked it to, government--very imperfectly--strives to ensure equal rights, to restrain monopoly and greed, to oppose bigotry and to deny special privileges. In this most risky lottery we call life, government is a precaution against economic misfortune and personal suffering.

Arrogance, of course, is no stranger to government. Government, as well, can be ignorant and an irritant. But government can also be very important to the lives of American citizens. Our task now is not to denounce and denigrate government but to determine, as a people, what it does well at each level, what it should do and what it should not be doing (like breaking up father-son sports banquets in Sioux City). But that job will never be done while those at the highest levels simply continue to attack the government they lead.