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.
It took a quarter-century for America to establish the minimum wage in 1938. It quickly became one of the most popular things governments do. So why hasn’t Congress raised the minimum wage in more than a decade? Because economists are divided about its impact. But the reason citizens support a higher minimum wage may have nothing to do with economics. It may be about fairness.
No law before or since has changed the built environment as much as the Americans with Disabilities Act and yet done so in ways so subtle as to be unnoticed by most. But if you are in a wheelchair—or are pushing a stroller or dragging wheeled luggage—you’ve benefited from its changes, which make America a fairer and more accessible place for millions of adults and children.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 demolished segregation in the South and took steps toward righting the terrible wrongs visited on African Americans. For these reasons, we should give thanks to the federal government. But these two laws also offer us important lessons today about why and how governments take historic actions—and how government actions can remove barriers to changed hearts.
Public transit didn’t start out as a government service. For more than a century, it was a for-profit industry that government assisted and regulated. When ridership declined and corporations abandoned the business, governments stepped in to keep transit alive. Why? Because buses and trains help cities work better. They also make urban life more affordable and appealing.