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SEVERE GOVERNMENT CUTS RUN THE RISK OF EMASCULATING COMMUNITY POWER

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Not only Republican voters believe that governments in this country have become too expansive in their functions, too costly and too intrusive. Whoever wins elections, the years ahead are going to be a time of limits on what governments try to do.

But it is a different thing to believe, as some now seem to believe, that government is evil - an unnecessary evil. To hear Newt Gingrich and his followers, the federal government should do little but maintain the national defense and pay out such middle-class entitlements as Social Security and Medicare. Everything else should be left to individual initiative.In a world as complex as ours, and as interconnected, even the strongest individual necessarily relies on all kinds of government actions.

There is a real danger that by enfeebling government we shall make the United States a less competitive country, and a less civilized one.

Adam Smith, the great advocate of market economies, nevertheless wrote that they needed government to educate the labor force, assure economic infrastructure and maintain public safety.

Noting that view in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Chalmers Johnson observes that our governments perform those functions less well than some of our competitors'.

Consider transportation, a crucial part of any society's infrastructure. Japan has bullet trains. Europe has trans-European expresses from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. We have struggling Amtrak, which is lopping off routes and services in anticipation of cutbacks in federal funds.

The rationale for starving Amtrak is that subsidies are bad - that passenger trains must make their competitive way in the market. But that is carrying theory over the edge.

There is a national interest in train service. Other countries subsidize it for that reason - as the United States, starting with President Eisenhower, has spent billions on the national highway network.

Or there is aviation safety. After a series of crashes of commuter planes, we learned that they did not have to meet the same federal safety standards as larger aircraft. Do we want to let the marketplace determine how safe planes should be? President Clinton has proposed to have a quasi-public corporation take over the FAA's air traffic control function. Is that a wise gamble?

There is a safety question about medical drugs, too. Some voices on the right are calling for elimination or severe restriction of the Food and Drug Administration, arguing that new drugs would get on the market more quickly if they did not have to go through extensive trials and approval by the FDA first.

That was the situation in Britain - no effective constraints on new drugs - when thalidomide went on the market as a tranquilizer in the 1960s. Pregnant women who used it gave birth to terribly deformed children, without arms and legs. Do we want to test drugs in the marketplace?

Safety and physical infrastructure are not the only necessary concerns of government in a market economy. Adam Smith listed education. Today he would surely add to that the encouragement of scientific research. Yet funds for university research are another target of budget-cutters.

There are other elements of a good society that individuals alone cannot provide - that depend on "the power of a community." Sigmund Freud used that phrase 60 years ago. Trying to define what makes for civilization, he spoke of technological accomplishment, beauty, order and respect for ideas. But the decisive civilizing step, he wrote, was the replacement of individual force by the power of the community.

Some civilizing elements of life are under particular threat in this country today. One example is public libraries, a peculiarly American way to self-improvement, to enlargement of the mind and spirit.

Public television and radio will get no federal funds if Gingrich has his way. At one stroke, he would endanger the only meaningful scientific programs and documentaries on American television and by far the most serious news on radio and television. So this large, rich country would have nothing like what modest Britain has in the BBC.

Rugged individualism is part of the American creed. But another part, vital since the beginning, has been the power of the community to improve our lives.