Insurance is critical to our economy and our lives and, taken as a whole, surprisingly big. Americans spend nearly as much each year on insurance coverage as on food. But insurance rests on a promise that, if the worst happens, you will be protected. Why should we believe that promise? Because for nearly 200 years, state governments have audited insurance companies’ books and watched their payment records to be sure they keep their word.
The human lifespan has doubled in the past century, and a big part of the reason is that we have safer, more effective drugs and cleaner processing of meat, poultry, and vegetables. In the United States, ensuring these things belongs almost exclusively to the federal government. Looking back, what’s surprising is what a struggle it was to get reasonable food and drug regulation. But now that we see the results, let’s take a moment to thank government for them.
State governments began licensing doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals in the late 1800s. They did it because colleges were turning out highly trained people who found themselves surrounded by con artists and quacks. The professionals turned to the states for help. In the century and a half since, licensing has raised professional standards and given us some assurance that those we depend on for expert advice are trained and acting in our best interests. For this, we can thank government.
Fifty years ago the federal government created the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio and gave them the mission of educating children and informing adults over the public airwaves. PBS went on to become the most trusted institution in America, one offering resources rivaling those of great museums. It delivers its acclaimed programs coast to coast at no cost to viewers and small cost to taxpayers. Here’s how two government-supported organizations educated and informed millions at the flick of a switch.
The most transformative technology of our era started out as a government project and was supported mostly by government funds until it was discovered by businesses in the 1990s. Here’s how the internet became the preferred way of connecting computers and creating an online world, why this government creation beat out private competitors, and what it tells us about the role governments play in economic development.