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American Government, Lesson 01. Introduction

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Creation of a Government

The Pilgrims found a spot “fit for situation” and landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, December 22, 1620. No civilized government existed on these new shores, and the Pilgrims, although a religious people, realized that they would be unable to preserve order among themselves and maintain protection against the Indians without government and laws. In fact, dissensions on the Mayflower had already impressed them with the necessity of establishing a government.

Accordingly, while lying off Cape Cod, the forty-one male adults signed the following agreement:

“We whose names are under-written … doe . . . combine ourselves together into a civill body politick … to enact . such just and equall laws … from time to time as shall be thought most meete and convenient for ye generall good of ye Colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

Thus a new government came into existence.

Why Government Is Important

A government is the agency through which the purposes of a state are formulated and executed.  Government is important because through cooperation we are able to maintain peace, security, justice, and public services more easily than if individuals acted singly.

Each individual may not directly assist in maintaining peace, security, justice, and public services; but every person who has money to spend contributes his part towards the support of the millions of persons who are employed to do the work. On the average, one who works contributes, directly or indirectly, to the governments of the United States, of his State, and of his local district one day’s work a week.

The Cost of Government

The expenditures of our National government are about $4 trillion a year; those of our State and local governments are more than $3 trillion. Thus our various governments cost us about $7 trillion a year, or an average of about $23,000 for each man, woman, and child in the United States.

How the Cost of Government Is Borne

The cost of government is borne by individuals through taxation.  Taxes are paid to the respective governments either directly or indirectly. If paid directly, a taxpayer delivers the assessed amount of taxes to the collector directly, but if paid indirectly he pays it in the form of rent or in the purchase price of articles that he consumes. To illustrate, the owner of a house usually pays a state tax, county tax, township tax (or city tax if he lives in a city) directly to the officers of these governments; but in case a house is rented, although the owner of the house hands over the money to the tax collector, the renter really pays it, for the owner charges more rent than he would if he had no taxes to pay.

Since the World War the United States has raised most of its revenue by direct taxation, e.g. income taxes and excess profits taxes. In addition to this however, the United States government finds indirect taxes less  objectionable: for example, the manufacturers of such articles as cigars, cigarettes, alcoholic beverages and luxury item pay taxes to the United States government and then sell these products at a price high enough to enable them to pay the tax and earn a profit. The person who uses the articles really pays the tax.

Thousands of articles imported into the United States from foreign countries are also taxed by the United States. The importer pays the tax and then sells the articles at an advanced price; so the consumer is really the man who pays the tax.

Increased Cost of Government

The cost of the National government increased from an average of just over $800 per capita in 1960 to $23,000 per capita in 2021 — an increase of 28 times. Yet, the government so safeguarded the citizen, promoted science, protected property, and encouraged industry that the average estimated wealth per capita during the same period increased from around $2000 in 1960 to over $40,000 – nearly 20 times.  So the cost of government is increasing for the American people, but not by as much as many might think.

The Benefits of Government

Many people fail to appreciate the benefits derived from the taxes they pay; but who would go back to the trail through the forest, the ford in the river, the muddy roads and streets, the log schoolhouse, the undrained swamps, the typhoid infested water, and all the other discomforts of former times, even if taxes were twice as high as they are now? Let us name and discuss briefly a few of the benefits of government.

1. Government Enables Us to Be Independent of Foreign Countries

As soon as the thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent of England they established State governments in order to gain their independence. When the separation was acknowledged by the mother country each State was so small that it was in great danger of being seized by one of the European powers, and in order to secure their independence and have the European countries treat them as equals they were obliged to form a strong United States.

Today, if it were not for the United States army and navy, our commerce upon the seas would be endangered by pirates and our homes and billions of dollars’ worth of property in cities on navigable streams might be blown to destruction by the guns of hostile powers. No individual could protect his own property against such attacks because such protection requires the maintenance of an army and a navy which costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Of course nations would not destroy our property without some cause, but the cause might be an unreasonable one.

2. Government Protects Our Property from Criminals

If it were not for the sheriffs, constables, and policemen, persons who are known to carry large amounts of money would never be safe; indeed persons who carry any money would be in constant danger of being robbed. Furthermore, every night one would retire with the dread of being murdered for the few pieces of silver in the house, and on getting up one would seldom find the bottle of milk which the milkman leaves at the door before daylight.

Today if a crime is committed in your neighborhood, a policeman can be called by telephone, and if the criminal is not caught at once, news of the crime will flash to all near-by towns and cities. In some cities or thickly settled communities a thousand policemen can be notified in ten minutes. For instance, if a crime is committed in Princeton, New Jersey, the police headquarters of Trenton (ten miles away) and other near-by cities are notified. The Trenton headquarters will flash a light in the police box on each policeman’s beat, and every policeman will see the signal, go to the box, and learn the nature of the crime by telephone.

3. Government Maintains Peace and Order

In our early days a fist fight was the most persuasive argument in settling a political dispute, and if the parties involved held a social position which made a fist fight unbecoming, a duel answered as well. To-day an officer is at hand to prevent a fight in any public place, and insults are commonly settled by libel or slander suits. When satisfactory courts exist to enforce the law, people of to-day frown upon those who attempt to settle their differences by physical force instead of resorting to the courts.

4.  Government Performs Functions Which Would Be Unprofitable as Private Ventures

Individuals or companies would not find it profitable to perform any of the following functions in the large and accommodating manner in which our governments perform them.

a. Protection to Health

The Public Health Service is charged with preventing the importation of diseases from foreign countries or their spread from state to state. It therefore operates our maritime quarantine stations. It cooperates with state and local health authorities in suppressing epidemics, making sanitary surveys, and conducting studies of public health administration; and it conducts extensive investigation in child hygiene, industrial sanitation, and the protection of water supplies. It also makes special investigations of such diseases as tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, anthrax, pellagra, plague, trachoma, typhoid fever, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever; it supervises and regulates the manufacture and sale of such biological products entering interstate commerce as viruses, vaccines, therapeutic serums, toxins, antitoxins, used in the prevention and cure of diseases of man, in order to insure their good quality; and it disseminates public health information by means of various popular and scientific publications.

Upon the recommendation of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, the President of the United States details officers to serve in consulates around the world. It is the business of these highly trained officers to detect and prevent persons suffering from contagious diseases from embarking on vessels destined to the United States, and to obtain first hand information with regard to sanitary conditions and the prevalence of disease in such ports. American consuls who are stationed in hundreds of leading cities of the world also make reports of health conditions, which reports are placed at the disposition of the Public Health Service. Where there is no medical officer, the consul also aids in preventing the embarkation of persons suffering from contagious diseases. State and city health officers throughout the United States make reports of contagious diseases direct to the Surgeon General.

A seventeenth century English author incidentally mentions the fact that every fourth person in a large representative audience was horribly disfigured by the smallpox. With our modern travel of persons and interchange of commodities in commerce we should never be safe from smallpox, cholera, yellow fever, and other dreaded diseases if it were not for our public health services. Should we begrudge the taxes we pay to insure us against such calamities?

States, counties, and cities also have their health departments to safeguard the health of the community. These departments educate the people in the prevention of diseases, establish quarantines, order general vaccination, and regularly inspect the water, milk, and other food supplies that are most likely to carry disease germs.

b. Protection to Life

In addition to the protection to life given by police officers and courts, many cities have building regulations limiting the height of buildings in proportion to the local fire protection, requiring fire escapes on high buildings, prescribing rules for sanitary plumbing and fire-proof wiring, and requiring that doors to public buildings open outward. Cities also have traffic regulations, such as limiting the speed of automobiles and prescribing how they shall pass corners.

States employ factory inspectors to see that workmen have fresh air, sanitary working conditions, safe equipment, good lighting, and so on. The National government provides for the inspection of trains, ships and airplanes and other large vehicles, requires passenger vessels to take safety precautions, notifies vessels of storms, and maintains lighthouse and rescue stations.

c. Care of Poor and Helpless

The government works to ensure that the poor, sick, handicapped and elderly in America receive the assistance and care they need.  In 2021, almost $3 trillion of assistance is provided for the needy through programs that include Social Securty, Medicare and unemployment services.  The ill and those who care for them are provided with funding and resources necessary for their needs.  All American citizens are treated with dignity and provided with the necessary care they deserve.

d. Free Education

Over $700 billion is spent annually for public K-12 schools throughout the United States, or an average of about $14,000 per year for each student. The average cost of private schools, around $12,000 per student, is less than the public schools, not taking into account the extra cost of boarding. From these figures it can be seen that poor parents with large families could not afford to educate their children if public schools were not provided by the government, and those who attend public schools receive generous opportunities. Free libraries, art galleries, and museums are also established by governments, thus providing for all what the rich alone could otherwise afford, helping to enrich the culture of all American citizens.

e. Protection to Public Morals

In many ways the national, State, and local governments are seeking to protect public morals. The national government regulates the manufacture and sale of liquors and dangerous substances; the bringing of dangerous sporting events or gambling into any state, and denies the use of the mail service for carrying fraudulent matter.

State and city governments regulate the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, and prohibit gambling and other recognized forms of vice. Each state maintains one or more reformatories or juvenile detention centers for incorrigible boys and girls, where they are trained to better citizenship. Cities commonly have censors to monitor theaters, movies and television shows, and other such public media, to prevent immoral performances.  Many complain of the immorality of television, radio and the internet, but the government cannot be blamed.  The desire of the people using these media are to blame and the government should not be asked to control everything.

f. The Census

Every 10 years, the national government conducts a nationwide census.  The census gives the number of persons of each race, color, sex, age, occupation, whether married or single, and whether able to write, but it gives detailed information regarding manufactures, agriculture, forests, mines, etc.

The census is especially valuable because it shows the condition of industry in each locality of the United States and thus assists legislators in remedying bad conditions. From these tabulated facts the general tendency of the country can be observed. The volumes on manufactures and agriculture are especially valuable to persons interested in these industries. For instance, if a manufacturer of corn cutters, milk cans, or poultry food wants to know where there is a demand for his products he can learn the production of corn and the approximate number of cows and of chickens in each county in the United States.

Between the periods required for taking and tabulating the decennial census, the bureau is engaged in making various investigations, such as the wealth, debt, and taxation of the United States, States, and cities.

g. Aids to Commerce

The national government maintains lighthouses, beacons, and buoys, builds dams, digs canals, and dredges rivers and harbors. It cooperates with the States in building levees. States and counties build roads and bridges. Cities construct streets, bridges, and wharves.  Without these, trade would be impossible.

h. Aids to Agriculture

The national, state, and county governments all give aid to agricultural industry. For instance, the Department of Agriculture has a bureau of plant industry, with scientists to introduce valuable plants into the United States—e.g., hardy wheat which resists wheat rust and thrives in dry climates, a variety of alfalfa which resists droughts, etc.

The Department of Agriculture also promotes animal industry in various ways. In the 1920s, “Texas Fever” had made the cattle industry unprofitable in many parts of the country when the government veterinarians discovered that the fever was carried by ticks. The ticks were killed by driving the cattle through narrow vats filled with a chemical solution, and large areas were freed from this fever. The department has driven the hoof and mouth disease across the Atlantic many times. It has also discovered a serum and virus that makes hogs immune from cholera, an epidemic of which has bankrupted many a farmer.

In remote corners of the West mountain lions, bobcats, bears, wolves, and coyotes prey upon sheep, cattle, and horses. To combat these predatory animals, this department maintains hundreds of hunters who use guns, traps, and poisonous baits with appealing odors. In one small region of Colorado where livestock owners used to lose animals daily, which can now range unattended without loss. Rabies, prevalent among these animals, has spread rapidly to stock and to human beings at times. When an outbreak is discovered, hunters are concentrated to prevent its spread which would mean the loss of millions of dollars and many human lives. Various methods of killing prairie dogs, gophers, ground squirrels, jack rabbits, rats, and mice have been worked out by the department.

Not only have domesticated animals been protected from wild animals and diseases, but the stock has been improved by scientific breeding. Even the honey-bee has been bred up and improved and is a better honey producer to-day than his remote ancestors.

The national government has built irrigation plants, bringing barren lands into a high state of cultivation. The Roosevelt Dam in Arizona, was built to supply electric power to Phoenix and Mesa and large copper mines in the area. The Elephant Butte Dam in New Mexico was built to hold enough water to cover 3,000,000 acres a foot deep. The Huntley Project in Montana bulit a canal which uses a waterfall to furnish power to raise a portion of the water to a plateau above, which is thus watered as well as the plains below.

America would not be the abundant land it is without these aids given by our government to agriculture.

5. Government Changes Old Laws in the Interest of Society

We inherited from England many “common law” rules which were developed by courts; but in recent years some of these rules have been replaced by more humane statutes. For instance, under the old rule, when an employee was injured and sued an employer for damages, the employee had to prove that the employer had been negligent. To meet this proof the employer could use any of the following defenses: contributory negligence on the part of the employee, negligence on the part of a fellow servant, or assumption of risk.

To illustrate, a young woman, whose hair was dishevelled because of the heat, had her scalp torn off by a laundry mangle, but she could not obtain damages because the employer showed that she had contributed to the accident. A workman injured in a quarry by a runaway car could not obtain damages because a drunken fellow workman had released the car. And, a woodsman could not obtain damages for injuries caused by a falling tree because he had assumed the risk of this dangerous occupation.

State after state has abolished the three old common law defenses, and to-day in most States the injured in designated industries are compensated even though they have been careless. This compensation is paid from workmen’s compensation insurance funds maintained principally by employers. It is now considered better to place the cost of all injury upon the industry rather than upon the individual.

6.  Government Performs Functions in the Interest of the Community without Profit Which as Private Ventures Would Have to Be Performed for Profit

If the national government had not built the Panama Canal it would probably have been built as a private venture. Much of the western land irrigated by the national government would have been irrigated by private companies. If the national government had not built the Alaskan railroad, private capital would have; and if the United States had not established a postal system, private capital certainly would have organized such a system. All of these enterprises are now conducted in the interest of the community irrespective of the profit they might yield, whereas private companies would have to conduct them so as to secure profits.

Of these national ventures the postal system is the most interesting. Originally such systems were maintained by governments of the Old World to carry messages for the king and ministers of state. The carrying of letters for the public was added later, and as late as 1860 the sole business of the United States post office was to carry letters, papers, and small packages from one office to another, where they were distributed from a window. Now it supplies city and rural carriers, special delivery messengers, street boxes, registry, post cards, stamped paper, stamp books, and much more.


American History, Lesson 01.  Comprehension Questions