In their new book, How Government Built America (Cambridge University Press), Sidney A. Shapiro, the Fletcher Chair in Administrative Law at the Wake Forest University School of Law, and Joseph P. Tomain, Dean Emeritus and Wilbert and Helen Ziegler Professor of Law in the University of Cincinnati College of Law, take on the growing anti-government rhetoric and explore the positive role government has played in promoting prosperity, protecting people, and providing an economic safety net. Shapiro is a founding member and vice-president of the Center for Progressive Reform where Tomain is a member scholar. As part of A Few Questions for…, In the Public Interest’s Q&A series, we asked the authors questions about their motivations for writing the book, their findings, and what they hope people will learn from the book.

Your book is titled How Government Built America and it presents an argument. Can you summarize that argument and say why you’re making that argument now, at this point in history?

SHAPIRO & TOMAIN: We have been teaching and writing about government for a long time, and we were always troubled by the political rhetoric about shrinking the government. The problem with that argument is that government has always played an essential role in the country from colonial times to the present. The reason is that both government and markets have been necessary to achieve the nation’s fundamental values of liberty, equality, fairness, and the public interest. That remains an ongoing project, but history continually shows that markets alone cannot do the job.

In your preface, you give some background on the two of you being in college in the 1960s, saying you believed government service was a noble calling and that “gradually the mood in the country shifted to skepticism about the government.” But it seems that a lot of activists of the 1960s were also suspicious of the role of the government, as exemplified by the FBI domestically and the CIA internationally. Has overall skepticism of government grown broadly, or has it shifted from left to right? Do you have a sense from your research why that skepticism seems so prevalent right now?

SHAPIRO & TOMAIN: The left’s skepticism about government in the 1960s was related to its complicity in subverting our fundamental values as the question points out. Today’s skepticism on the right is about the same thing despite the focus on stolen elections and a deep state. The real problem is that large parts of the country have been struggling economically for decades because of globalization, the movement of manufacturing overseas, and related developments. The wealth that was generated by these changes stayed at the top in the form of tax cuts and cuts in government spending. In the 1950s, the country had the most wealth equality we’ve ever had. Today, we have the least. Abraham Lincoln saw a purpose of government was to create a “fair chance in the race of life.” We used government to do this before, and we need to do it again.

In the book, you explore the role of government and the role of markets. This is a two part question, or two questions coming from opposite directions: Why shouldn’t the U.S., as conservatives believe, let the market solve our problems because, as they say, markets are more effective and efficient? Here’s the second part: Why can’t government be used exclusively–what good is the market?

SHAPIRO & TOMAIN: We need a mix because both markets and government have the capacity to promote some of the country’s values. Markets encourage entrepreneurship and build up the wealth of the country. When they are the most effective and efficient way to organize the economy, liberty is expanded, and the public interest is promoted. But markets can also work in ways that reduce liberty and equality and conflict with the public interest. To cite just a few examples from out book: Problems of monopoly and pollution have been caused by unregulated markets. Private markets did not respond to COVID, they do not provide public education, and they do not take care of the poor. Nor do markets eliminate race and gender discrimination. In short, government plays a positive role when it protects those least able to protect themselves and provides fairer opportunity for all.

The structure of the book looks at government through the lenses of a dozen individuals, with chapters called “Abraham Lincoln’s America,” “Ida Tarbell’s America,” “Ronald Reagan’s America,” “Anthony Fauci’s America,” and so on. What went into the decision to present the material in this way?

SHAPIRO & TOMAIN: We wanted to highlight some of the people who had an outsized role in persuading Americans to support a change in the mix of government and markets because that is how change happens.  Americans persuade other Americans that a change is necessary – whether it favors government or markets – by arguing how the country has failed to live up to its national values. The people we have chosen are stand-ins for the many individuals – political leaders, citizen activists, and voters – who have been instrumental in the country living up to its aspirations. Some are well known, many are not, but it is clear that citizen activism is at the heart oft the country becoming truer to our values.

You open the book by exploring different governor’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, presenting them as examples of competing visions of, or perhaps for, the U.S. That makes it seem like a gentle disagreement on approach, but it plays out in ways that are far from gentle. Is that just a reflection on a particularly divisive moment in time in American history that will pass, or is it a permanent war that is always being waged, with greater or lesser intensity?

SHAPIRO & TOMAIN: It is not historically unusual for self-interested politicians to turn attention away from what should be the mix of government and markets, whether by using hot-button social issues as is now happening or as in a previous time using racial animus. But now, as before, we can overcome polarization when enough of us become focused on the pressing issues of our day – which now include climate change, rebuilding the industrial heartland to create more economic opportunity, continuing to address racial and other forms of discrimination, and more. There is nothing easy about capturing enough of the public’s attention, but it has happened before, and it will happen again.

As you began to conduct research for the book, did anything surprise you? 

SHAPIRO & TOMAIN: We were surprised to learn how heavily regulated markets were in colonial times and during the first decades of the country. At the time, almost every aspect of early American economy and society, from Sunday observance to the operation of taverns, was regulated by the states, and, before them, the colonies. This was “big” government considering the tiny size of the country and its economy. And it was supported by the Founders. They disagreed about the authority and activities of the federal government, but they supported the extensive market regulation in the states.

What do you hope people will learn from reading the book?

SHAPIRO & TOMAIN: We hope that readers will find out how government and market interactions have defined who we are as a country. Reasonable people will disagree about the precise mix of the two, but we hope that readers will come away persuaded that we cannot achieve those values by pretending that markets alone can do the trick. When we get the mix right, good things happen in the country. The challenge is to find the right mix, which can only be done if enough of us understand the importance of government in that mix.

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