When I’ve heard that question, I couldn’t help but picture that famous scene from the Monty Python’s Life of Brian:
Obviously (for me), the government does a lot. We just seem to take that for granted.
In exactly one month, there will be no roaming charges in the European Union anymore. All thanks to the European government – against the free market that made those charges skyrocket in the first place.
The EU also gave us micro USB as a standard for phone charging. Remember the old times, when borrowing a charger from someone was only possible if they had the same model? It’s easy to forget the bad times, once you get accustomed to the good ones. That initiative came, surprisingly, from the biggest phone companies, but nevertheless it’s thanks to the European Parliament that we have a law that actually requires it and makes sure that no company evades the standard.
Remember waiting in long lines to cross a border? The Schengen Treaty, thanks to which you can just walk to a neighbour country without even noticing the border, was a political project. Thank the governments for it.
Compare the healthcare in USA and in Europe. In the US it’s mostly private sector – it has millions of people without insurance, and it has absurdly high bills. In Germany or Sweden however hardly anyone worries about not being insured or about going bankrupt if they get sick. The government doesn’t even have to provide the healthcare itself – even if it just enforces the insurance duty and organises the framework for the private Krankenkassen, it already makes the healthcare way better.
But the argument was more along the lines of “NGOs have to fight for civil unions, and the government turns them down – ergo they get shit done, and the government is useless”. Oh, well..
Neither in Germany (where I live), nor in Poland (where I was born) the government is anywhere near getting closer to the marriage equality, while the NGOs do a great job for the cause – I’ll give you that. But remember how did Italians get their civil unions? Thanks to a verdict of the European Court of Human Rights, the government.
And what do you think should a civil union imply? You can decide about your partner’s life in emergencies, you can collect their mail, you can inherit from them, and other stuff like that, right? How do you imagine those rights being enforced, if there were no government? Would you just have to count on the NGOs to convince everyone to respect your rights? Or would you have to hire some
mafia free-market private police to threaten them?
The main thing about the government is its almost unanimously accepted authority. They have the power to get things done and people trust them with the responsibilities. You can question the legitimacy of some of its actions (like whatever the Polish gov is currently doing), but with a legit, democratic government there’s rarely any doubt about their prerogatives. Would you let a random guy, who established a “police” company, lock you up in prison, or is this only reserved the government?
We might not agree with some laws that the legislative passes, but most of us agree on the process in which they were established. And we all give the government its power to execute those laws and to prevent individuals from imposing their own rules, without any democratic process or control.
Government lets the society achieve stuff that the individuals or NGOs don’t have authority to introduce and sustain. Government lets the society develop things like art – that are not really viable, although useful or necessary. Government can force the industry to do things that are only viable in the long run, like renewables or fight against the climate change – which the free market wouldn’t do. It’s the government that protects the little guy, like you and me, from the big fish: gigantic, international corporations, greedy billionaires, mafias...
What would you do if a huge corporation drastically violated your rights, and you didn’t have any police or prosecution to turn to? Hire a private police? And pay them what, a hundred euro? A thousand? The corporation will pay them ten thousand then. You’re screwed.
Obviously, the government can become an oppressor as well. It’s even easier for it – because it doesn’t have any government above. At least until a couple of decades ago it didn’t. Now, with the development of international organisations and tribunals, the countries can check up on each other. It doesn’t work perfectly, otherwise we wouldn’t have North Korea or Saudi Arabia anymore, but it’s getting better and better.
I honestly cannot think of a government so corrupt and so tyrannical that is would be worse than anarchy. Even a strong, merciless fist is way better than a mindless, crazy jungle of anarchy, where the only assurance of any rights or well-being is your size and power. Even the worst possible government is way better than none.