Conservatives often say things like: Government can only confiscate wealth from productive citizens and give it to unproductive citizens; government itself produces nothing of value. (See, for example, the quotations referenced here.)
Thanks to government, we have civil rights, traffic regulations, safe aviation, labor laws, sanitation, seat belts and contracts.
Thanks to agencies like the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation, we have childhood immunization, new drugs and the Internet.
The FBI and the police fight crimes such as murder, robbery, rape, identity theft, child pornography and embezzlement. Aren't conservatives in favor of law-and-order, as well as strong national defense?
Regulatory agencies like the SEC protect us from financial mismanagement (reckless deregulation was a major cause of the subprime crash). The Centers for Disease Control and Safety fight diseases such as swine flu. The FDA battles unsafe food and medicines. The EPA tackles toxins and environmental degradation. FEMA comes to the rescue for disasters.
Locally, government provides public transportation, water, sewage, licensing, parks, roads, land management, courts, emergency services, snow removal and libraries.
The social safety net cares for the sick, poor and elderly. And public education works. The University of Washington and public schools in communities like Bellevue are excellent.
In most industrialized nations, government provides national health care at a fraction of the cost, and with better coverage, than America's market-based system.
Is government often corrupt and wasteful?
Absolutely! But so is the private sector (consider Enron, Wall Street, Bernie Madoff, banks and AIG). Moreover, corruption, waste and mismanagement flourished when Republicans ran the federal government, from 2000 to 2006.
Yes, government can be tyrannical (unnecessary war, torture). Yes, many Democrats are corrupt, too. Yes, government is often co-opted by special interests. But let's acknowledge all the good that government does and can do.
The solution isn't to give up and minimize government; we'd end up dysfunctional, like Somalia. The solution is to weed out corruption and incompetence, via voter-funded elections, media reform and increased accountability.
Given our massive public debt and the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth, we must raise taxes on the well-to-do. Conservatives complain that taxation and national health insurance amount to socialist redistribution of wealth. But in reality, government has tended to redistribute wealth to the rich, via corporate welfare, no-bid contracts, tax breaks and (recently) bailouts.
Washington state (where I live) has a particularly regressive tax system. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the wealthiest one percent of Washington taxpayers pay 3.2 percent of their income in taxes, compared to 17.6 percent for the poorest fifth of taxpayers.
See the following sites for national statistics about inequities in wealth: