Friday, December 14, 2018

ATTN: Liberals and Conservatives - What Is the Role of Government?

In these days of enraged people on both sides of the political spectrum, it would be helpful to take a deep breath, step back from the battle, and ask the question, “What is the role of government?”  Specifically, our government.  In answering this question we look to our founding documents.

According to the Constitution the purpose of government is to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”  If we look at the Declaration of Independence the role is defined more broadly, which is “to secure” the unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  I say more broadly because everything stated in the Constitution is necessary if one is to be able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Clearly the role of government is an active one.  Words such as “insure,”  “provide,” “promote,” and “secure” are all verbs denoting an ongoing active responsibility.

There are two aspects of the role as stated in both these documents that deserve focus.  First the Constitution refers to promoting the “general Welfare.”  This is clearly a statement that government must look to the welfare of all its citizens, not just some.  It is the general welfare that is important, not just the welfare of some segments of society.  Taken together with the Declaration’s statement that “all men are created equal” and have “unalienable rights,” our founding documents clearly stand for the value and the rights of each and every citizen, of all segments of society.

The second aspect I will focus on is that both documents state that the role of government is to “secure” what the Constitution broadly characterizes as “the blessings of liberty,” and which the Declaration more particularly describes as the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

To what extent has our government lived up to its responsibilities as set forth in our founding documents?  

First, let’s get one thing straight … regardless the political party in power or the era, the United States has harbored huge inequality, not just regarding wealth but well-being.  This is true despite all the social welfare programs that were enacted in the 20th century.  While one can talk about the poor being worse off or better off under a particular administration, and one can say that materially the poor are better off in modern times than ever, their state of well-being remains a negative one.  (Perhaps this is why so many of the poor don’t vote; why they say it doesn’t make a difference who is in power, which liberals find maddening.)  

Why is life for the poor degrading?  Widespread discrimination, unequal access to quality education, substandard housing to name perhaps the most important factors.  This negative well-being has in turn spawned an environment of gangs, violence, and drugs which haw made a bad situation that much worse.  Note:  it is not poverty itself that makes life degrading, it is these attendant factors.

This is true regardless whether one is looking at people of color or whites, urban or rural.  And, to counter a widely held perception, while the majority of those living in poverty are people of color, 44% are white.  In 2018, the figures were white - 44%, black - 23%, Hispanic - 28%, and Asian - 5%.  Yes, blacks disproportionately commit more crimes and engage in drug trafficking, but they also suffer disproportionately more discrimination, bad education, and substandard housing.  Many whites blame blacks for inflicting the drugs and violence environment on themselves, but such accusations totally overlook the role of the white-imposed reality of life for blacks in America.

Bottom line.  Government has not promoted the general welfare.

From the foregoing, it is also clear that government has not secured the “blessings of liberty” for a large proportion of Americans (40 million people live poverty, 12.3% of the population).  The charge is not that government hasn’t provided these blessings, because that is not government’s role.  

It’s role is to secure the “right” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.   What does that mean?  It means that government has the responsibility for insuring that all citizens have an equal opportunity to pursue their right to life, liberty, and happiness.  What an individual makes of that right is his or her responsibility.  

So for example, it is government’s role to insure that the education provided in all schools is of equivalent quality.  That is sadly far from the case.  It is government’s responsibility to insure that there is no discrimination by educating children and adults about equality, passing appropriate laws, and vigorously enforcing them.  It is government’s responsibility to insure that no one lives in substandard housing through building codes, etc. that are vigorously enforced.  Then there is the right to vote.  Before the Voting Rights Act of 1964, Blacks were routinely denied the vote in much of the South.  In recent years, Republican forces have been attacking this right in a deceitful way which primarily impacts poor people of color in order to reduce Democratic voter turnout.

While government has certainly made advances in addressing these issues, most have been half-hearted.  None have come even close to fundamentally changing the status quo.

The one area where government’s effort to secure a right has been to a large extent successful has been in the area of access to health care.  Through Medicaid, the vast majority of people living in poverty have health insurance.  There are still problems of health care access, especially in rural areas, but this nevertheless has largely been a successful effort.  And it has been made even more so with the passage of Obamacare and its expansion of Medicaid.

So what do we do with the basic fact that our government is not truly fulfilling its role.  It’s doing many things it should be doing, and probably very little of what it does is unnecessary, outside the area of defense.  But when it comes to promoting the general welfare and securing the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens, it has barely scratched the surface.

Why not?  It isn’t for lack of resources.  But it is a matter of priorities.  What I’m referring to is not really even on the list of priorities.  And that is for two very different reasons.  

For conservatives, they just don’t see the role of government as being more than providing for our defense, insuring domestic tranquility (i.e. order), and letting business and people be free to do pretty much what they want to do without government “interference” (that’s their definition of the blessings of liberty).  They are comfortable with government subsidizing business and farmers (a subset of business) in many ways; it’s individuals that they don’t think deserve government support.

For liberals, while they see the role of government very differently, as a source of help for those who need it, changing the fundamental status quo is not on their radar.  Whether that’s because they don’t see it as a viable option, or because it’s not something that has even entered their thought process, it’s just not there.  They are mentally and spiritually limited by the world as they know it.  They are not visionaries.  And what this country needs is visionaries.

How do we develop visionaries in the population and in our politicians?  It starts by not accepting the status quo, by understanding that there is something basically wrong with the way things are and have always been.  That what is going on is contrary to the basic tenets of our founding documents.  It means going back to the content of our education system as it pertains to civics.

But that is not going to happen.  And one reason why is that, as noted, you have such diametrically opposed intellectual approaches to our founding documents.  For example, on the one hand you have the thoughts expressed in my book, We Still Hold These Truths, published in 2004, which present our founding documents as primarily liberal in spirit.  On the other hand, you have Mathew Spaulding’s book of the same title, published in 2009, which argues for a conservative reading of those same documents.  And he castigates progressives for perverting those documents.

I don't think there is anything one can do to convince a Spaulding or any of his followers that the liberal interpretation of our founding documents is correct.  However, one can focus liberals/progressives on the fact that their position is supported by these documents.  And one can educate independents.  

I find it amazing not only that the Democratic Party has never taken my book to its heart and used it productively, they’ve never really taken notice of it, but that they haven’t come up with anything to counter Spaulding’s argument.  They have walked away from our liberal birthright and left this elemental source of strength to the conservatives.

This is what must change if there is to be any hope of bringing the force of our founding documents to bear on this central issue of social justice.  Only then will we have a chance to end discrimination, provide equal access to education, end the blight of substandard housing for the poor, insure voting rights for all, and correct many other wrongs.

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