Public Values

A Day in Your Life would be Scary without Government

Despite anti-government campaign from political conservatives, government programs and policies improve our daily lives with little notice in countless ways.

A Day in Your Life would be Scary without Governmentby Ish Theilheimer, based on an article in

As a result of a relentless propaganda war, many people have the opinion that government "just creates red tape" and doesn't really help ordinary people.

Let's see if that is really true by examining a typical day in your life as a middle-class Canadian and how government affects you.

6:30 a.m. You are awakened by your clock radio and listen for a few minutes to the news before getting up. But you can listen to your favourite station only because the Canadian Radio Television Commission (CRTC) brings organization and coherence to our vast telecommunications system. It ensures, for example, that radio stations do not overlap and that stations signals are not interfered with by the numerous other devices — cell phones, satellite television, wireless computers, etc. — whose signals crowd our nation's airwaves.

6:38 a.m. You go into the kitchen for breakfast. You pour some water into your coffeemaker. You simply take for granted that this water is safe to drink. But in fact you count on your city water department to constantly monitor the quality of your water and to immediately take measures to correct any potential problems with this vital resource. In Ontario in the 1990s, the Conservative government tried a privatized approach to water safety that proved disastrous.

6:39 a.m. You flip the switch on the coffee maker. There is no short in the outlet or in the electrical line and there is no resulting fire in your house. Why? Because when your house was being built, the electrical system had to be inspected to make sure it was properly installed — a service provided by your local government. And it was installed by an electrician who was trained and licensed by the province to ensure his/her competence and your safety.

6:45 a.m. You sit down to breakfast with your family. You are having eggs — a food that brings with it the possibility of salmonella poisoning, a serious food-borne illness affecting thousands of Canadians every year. But the chance of you getting sick from these eggs has now been greatly reduced by strict provincial regulations affecting egg producers and regular inspections.

7:00 a.m. You go into your newly renovated bathroom. You use the toilet and flush it. Your municipal government, usually with provincial and sometimes with federal financial help, then takes care of transporting this waste, treating it, and disposing of it in an environmentally responsible manner — all without a second thought by you.

7:20 a.m. As you are getting dressed, a glance outside the window shows some ominous clouds. You check Environment Canada. Every day, on your behalf, it takes in thousands of weather observations from surface stations, ships, aircraft, buoys, balloons, and satellites and puts out word through websites and news reports — all just to help you plan what to wear and make sure you don't get stuck in a snow storm. This government agency alone may be responsible for saving thousands of lives every year.

7:30 a.m. Before you leave home, you take your pills to control your high blood pressure. But how do you know that this medicine is safe or effective? Without the testing required by Health Canada, you wouldn't. And without the vigilance of Health Canada, you could easily fall victim to unscrupulous marketers of unsafe and worthless medicines.

7:45 a.m. You put a couple of letters in your mailbox. For less than the price of a cup of coffee, a Canada Post employee will come to your house, pick up the letters, and have them delivered in a few days to someone on the other side of the country.

7:50 a.m. You and your child walk across the lawn to your car and arrive without getting dog poop on your shoes. A small but welcome achievement that is made possible now by a local law that requires people to clean up after their pets. Also, the reason your neighbourhood is not plagued by stray cats and dogs is that your local animal control officer is on the job dealing with this constant problem.

7:52 a.m. You help your young child into your car and you pull out of your driveway. You have now entered an experience improved by government in more ways that you can count. Driving your car is inherently dangerous. But it is made immensely safer by government laws and regulations, such as those mandating child safety seats and the use of seat belts — rules that have saved tens of thousands of lives. Driving down the street is also made much safer by a local government that enforces traffic laws and discourages people from driving too fast or driving drunk. Insurance is required and regulated by government. Truckers' hours are kept to a maximum. Without laws and regulations covering driving, it would be foolish for us to ever venture out on the road.

8:15 a.m. You drop off your youngest at daycare. If you're fortunate, your municipality or province helps fund the program. Even if it doesn't, your child benefits from the fact that most provincial governments now enforce child care requirements for group size, ratios of children per staff member, teacher training, nutrition, health, safety, and space requirements.

8:20 a.m. Your older kids get on the school bus, which operates under strict regulations from your province's transport ministry. It takes them to school. If it's a public school or a publicly-funded separate school, it is a creation of government from funding to professional certification, curriculum development, health, safety, class sizes, and every other aspect of school life.

8:35 a.m. With the kids safely off, you can make your trip into work, by municipal public transportation, or by car.

8:55 a.m. You arrive at work and take the elevator. You just assume that the elevator is safe; and it is, thanks in part to the annual elevator inspections required by your provincial government.

9:00 a.m. While at work, your rights and well-being are constantly protected by federal and provincial laws. Thanks to these laws, yesterday's unsafe and unhealthy work conditions have disappeared. Federal and provincial law protects you from workplace discrimination based on race, gender, religion, national origin, or disability. Provincial laws require your employer to purchase workers compensation insurance so that you are covered in case you are injured.

Noon. For lunch you have your usual sandwich and microwave-able cup of soup. But why did you choose that particular soup? Food companies tell you what they want you to know about their products, but food labelling requirements enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tell you what you need to know to eat in a healthy way. Agriculture Canada enforces standards for pesticide residue on raw foods like the lettuce on your sandwich. Microwave ovens are potentially very dangerous, but you can use this one with confidence because of detailed government regulations that limit the maximum amount of radiation leakage.

12:45 p.m. After lunch, you walk to a nearby ATM and get some cash out of your account — and your money is actually there. This is thanks in part to government regulations on the banking industry and government guarantees of your deposits. Money itself is entirely a government creation, and the value of money is only maintained because the government regulates the money supply and protects it from counterfeiters.

1:00 p.m. Back at work you hear rumors about a new downsizing plan being talked about by management. You know your job could be lost, but you also know you will be eligible for federal unemployment insurance should that happen. It may be less than it should be or formerly was, but EI remains an important way that government helps you to cope.

3:00 p.m. On a break, you call your elderly mother in the hospital to check on how she is recovering from her broken hip. Thanks to Medicare, her medical expenses are covered and she does not have to worry about this becoming a financial disaster for her.

3:10 p.m. You call to arrange for a physical therapist to work with your mother when she comes out of the hospital, and again this is paid for by the provincial government health plan. And you can be reasonably confident that she will get good therapy because your provincial health ministry has a program of examining and licensing therapists to ensure they know what they're doing.

5:00 p.m. You leave work — thanks to the government-mandated 40-hour work week. Provincial labour regulations prevent your company from making you work past 5:00 unless it pays you overtime.

5:15 p.m. You stop at a local gas station to fill up. You pump 55 litres of 87 octane gas into your car and pay for it. But how do you know that you really got 55 litres, and not 54½? And that the gas was actually 87 octane? This is only ensured by the presence of that little sticker on the gas pump that shows that Measurement Canada, an agency of Industry Canada, has inspected the pump and the gas. These public employees make sure that you get what you pay for — from a pound of sliced turkey breast to a carat of diamond — by constantly testing and inspecting all commercial meters and scales, and by verifying the accuracy of checkout scanners.

5:30 p.m. As you drive home, you notice the tree-lined streets and the nice houses in your neighbourhood — generally a pretty good place to live. Thanks again to government. Without zoning rules, you might have an auto body shop or a fast-food outlet move in next door. Or worse yet, a fertilizer plant or a toxic waste site. Pleasant, safe and liveable neighbourhoods are only possible with extensive government planning, regulation and enforcement.

5:35 p.m. As you approach your house, you see your child coming down the sidewalk. The government-provided sidewalk. The sidewalk that allows your child to walk to the neighbour's house down the street to play with a friend without the risk of being hit by a car.

5:45 p.m. You go for a jog in your local public park.

6:30 p.m. You take your family out for dinner at a local pizza restaurant. You enjoy a good meal and no one gets sick from E. coli or other food-borne illnesses due to regular government inspections of all food establishments to protect the health of customers.

8:00 p.m. You do a quick check of your e-mail and surf the Web. The Internet began with US federal government programs that created ARPANET and later NSFNET, early computer networking systems that developed the software and networking infrastructure that form the foundations of today's internet. The US government also helped to fund research that led to web browsers like Internet Explorer and search engines like Google.

11:00 p.m. You go to bed. During your sleep, you are protected by a smoke detector that your city or province requires to be installed in every residence. Maybe you would have bought one of these yourself, but this law helps to ensure that everyone is protected from the dangers of fire. If disaster occurs, firefighters and paramedics are waiting and ready to help you. If the worst occurs and you find yourself in hospital, your health card unlocks a world of top-level professional service with no cash outlay at all. Every aspect of your interaction with the health care system is carefully orchestrated by government, from hours of care, to equipment to drugs to cleaning standards.

4:00 a.m. You are asleep in your comfy bed. By law, no one can keep roosters in your neighbourhood and so you remain in blissful slumber.

The conservative campaign against government

We like to see ourselves as rugged individualists, leading our lives without any help from anyone, especially government. But this is an illusion. We are constantly benefiting from government laws and programs. Federal, state, and local government employees are literally working around the clock to make our lives better in innumerable ways. Even those conservatives who complain that they don't want government "interfering" in their lives depend heavily and repeatedly on government throughout their day. And the examples described earlier are only a small sample of the many ways that government programs improve our lives.

So why are most people in denial about the beneficial roles that government plays in their lives? There are several answers. First, most Canadians have become so used to the benefits of government that they simply take them for granted. Our failure to notice or appreciate what government does for us also has to do with the unique and peculiar nature of many government benefits. The benefits we get from paying our taxes are usually not immediate, and they are often not particularly tangible either.

Much of the job of government in our lives is to ensure that bad things don't happen to us. We pay taxes so that our homes don't get burgled, and our food doesn't make us sick, and our bridges don't collapse. When people in government are doing their job right — nothing happens.

There is, however, another much more disturbing reason most of us mistakenly believe that government doesn't do much for us: this is what we are being constantly told. One of the most consistent political messages promoted by conservatives is that our governments are essentially thieves — that they take our taxes but rarely give us back anything of value.

This idea that government programs do not benefit the average Canadian is simply one part of a larger smear campaign against government being waged by the right-wing in the country. We have been continually told that government is inefficient, ineffective, corrupt, oppressive, overly expensive, and bad for business. Many Canadians have concerns about their governments, but this tendency has been greatly exacerbated and exaggerated by a steady diet of anti-government rhetoric coming from the political right.

The media often go along with the conservative smear campaign against government. Right-wing media outlets editorialize against big government. Conservative commentators lambaste wasteful social programs and ridiculous regulations. Mainstream news outlets convey an almost entirely negative view of government to the public. It is not news when government works well, only when it fails. So news stories focus on policy blunders, government waste, and corrupt politicians. It is rare to see something positive about how government is working in the media.

Every day we are hearing about what is wrong with government, so it is inevitable that we tend to develop an incomplete, distorted, and negative view of the public sector. But it is time to set the record straight about this much-maligned public institution.

This article was adapted from one appearing in the American online publication

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Posted: April 03, 2008

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