Monday, October 31, 2011

What it means to be a citizen


Man is by nature concerned solely with his and his family's wellbeing. That is his biological imperative.  Socially, however, man has evolved into being a member, a citizen, of a larger society. And so, from the most primitive communities to contemporary societies, that driving instinct has been reigned in for the greater good of the community. 

In primitive societies and in many Asian societies, a collective culture developed that enforced working for the good of the group largely through strong social pressure; the individual was of lesser importance. In the West, where the concept of individualism took root, societies have instead depended upon laws to control the relationship between man's individual liberties and rights and his part in the larger society.

There are thousands of laws that control the right of an individual to do what he might want to do.  Whether it's the criminal law, traffic laws, building codes and zoning laws, or product liability law, laws have been developed that balance the individual’s rights against the greater public good; they tell the individual what the limits are of his freedom to act.  Without such laws we would have anarchy.

As our society became more civilized and enlightened, the concept of man's pro-active responsibilities to the larger society developed.  Man not only has rights that are given by the laws of the community, he has concomitant shared responsibilities for the community that go beyond the responsibility not to harm others. This is the basis for the American social contract.

In the current political context, there is a huge uproar on the Right regarding three fundamental aspects of the relationship between government, individual rights, and the greater public good that came to define the American social contract in the 20th century.  The first is the regulation of business.  The second is progressive taxation.  The third is the government's responsibilities towards those less fortunate.

The primary interest of any business is self-interest ... that is its nature as much as it's man's nature.  As we saw during the industrial revolution and the early decades of the 20th century, if business is not regulated, it will show no concern for either its workers or the greater public good.  Indeed, it is because of man's unbridled greed that most of the laws and regulations we have on the books today exist.

It goes without saying that no man or business likes being regulated.  It hampers his freedom to do as he thinks is best and it often costs him money.   This is no different in concept from his desire to drive faster than the speed limit allows.  And so business tries to find a way around regulation, often with the collaboration of the very people hired to enforce regulations.

That is what happened with oil drilling in the Gulf, which resulted in the BP disaster.  That is what happened with the financial industry, which resulted in the 2008 recession and the current economic malaise of a large proportion of our citizens.

Most taxes, likes sales taxes, are regressive … the lower a person’s income, the larger the share of their income that goes to paying taxes.  (With regard to the sales tax, that’s because lower income people spend a larger share of their income on the purchase of necessities and other goods, accounting for the tax taking a larger share of their income.) 

As the United States developed into a more progressive society, it realized that regressive taxes posed an unfair burden on the poor.  A socially fair tax would work in the opposite way … the higher ones income, the greater the share of that income that would be paid in taxes because such people have much more discretionary income and therefore a higher tax would not pose any hardship.  And so when the income tax was instituted, that’s how it was designed … as a progressive tax.

In 1932, the income tax for the top bracket was 63% of income over $1,000,000.  In 1950, it was 91% of income over $400,000.  As recently as 1980, the rate was 70% of income over $212,000.  Today, the rate is 35% of income over $380,000. The rich are paying a smaller portion of their income as taxes to support the greater public good now than at any time since the income tax was instituted.

Over the course of the past 100 years, again as society has become more civilized and enlightened, government has taken a greater hand in both directly providing for those in need as well as ensuring in various ways that they have the opportunity to better their position in life. This was a fuller implementation of the role of government stated in the Declaration of Independence … “to secure” the right to life, liberty, and happiness. Programs that were once considered radical or socialist by Republicans, such as Social Security and Medicare, which they fought tooth and nail at the time, are now accepted by most as necessary programs ... not without their problems, but vital to the wellbeing of a large proportion of our citizens and thus the stability of our economy.

In all these areas, the current radical brand of Republican conservatives, egged on by the energy and anger of the Tea Party, have argued that the government’s role should be reduced or eliminated.  Business should not be regulated.  The wealthy should not pay more taxes.  Everyone should have to fend for themselves … if you don’t success, it’s your fault.

Each of these positions is against the balance that our nation has historically struck between private rights, the public good, and the role of government.  These positions violate an enlightened concept of the rights and responsibilities of a citizen.

The Tea Party wishes to take us back to an era where individualism ran rampant and success was limited to the few.  America’s strength in the 20th century evolved by broadening the base of prosperity among its citizens and creating a more vibrant, intelligent workforce through the intervention of government programs and regulation.

That is where we need to continue heading in the 21st century to ensure America’s continued strength.  The Tea Party and their Republican captives need to be recognized for what they are … a shill for big business and the rich.  They are not responsible citizens of this great republic.