What’s a Government to Do?

Again and again, as I try to understand political America, I wrestle with the question of what our government should do. What should its task be? This, I believe, is the real topic that divides liberal and conservative thought.

Conservative principles include the thought that the least government is the best government. All conservatives are convinced that the federal government of the US is grossly overgrown, resulting in very high taxes and wasteful spending (for the record, our taxes are modest, and at the lowest level in sixty years). We have constructed a nanny state that is designed to do a great many things we should be doing for ourselves. This is intrusive, not what we want, inefficient, and ineffective. What’s more, the end result is that a great many of “those people” (fill in your least favorite minority) game the system and waste taxpayer money, on which they live without working.

At the top of every conservative’s list of what government should do is “defense”. Few liberals would disagree that a strong military is desirable. The real question, though, is how strong, and the consistent conservative answer seems to be that it must always be stronger. But this is not an adequate answer for several reasons. If we look at military expenditures during the Cold War, it can hardly be claimed that our defensive structure was inadequate. It was huge, vast, uncontrolled. Yet it is much larger today: 42% of the entire world’s spending on military is the most recent figure I’ve seen. Spending has skyrocketed in the past decade. Here is the place that should be the prime target for conservative Republican budget chopping, yet they are making no such proposal. Can they seriously believe that bringing the military budget back to bloated Cold War levels would put us at risk?

A sub-question is what the military should do. We have historically used our military not merely for defense, but to bully small countries around the world, meddling in their politics, often against international law. In Afghanistan we have the ignoble distinction of having bombed record numbers of wedding parties, and president Obama appears to have taken up the assassin’s knife that so many past presidents have worn (which we now applaud because now he’s no longer seen as “weak”). Our list of past transgressions dates from Jefferson, and is almost always associated with someone else’s natural resources, particularly oil. It is the reason that a large percentage of people in the Arab world and elsewhere were indifferent to our suffering on 9/11. Our adventures are military, but they can hardly be termed “defense”.

My conclusion is that our military expenditures are far too high and often do not serve our national interest. Some adjustment would go a long way toward getting our federal budget and debt under control.

But the real complexity in liberal/conservative thought about federal spending comes with the question of “social” spending. Hard core conservative thought says that there should be no money at all spent on social costs, because all such expenses should be borne by individuals themselves, not the government—the doctrine of “personal responsibility”. By this they mean primarily Social Security and Medicare, both of which they want to end. This is a complex subject that suffers from conservative over-simplification, not to mention more than a trace of racism. Plus, ending the programs as they are constituted would not end the needs such programs were designed to address.

Consider a good honest person who has worked well at several jobs, raising a couple of good kids, being a good neighbor. But these jobs pay average wage, and ordinary family costs have kept personal savings at a modest level. In middle age, this person learns he or she has a disease that will cost a lot of money to treat, and may be fatal. In short order, the family burns up through their savings, loses their house, and sells everything not essential. The former wage earner becomes completely incapacitated, and requires daily help. The insurance company finds a handy excuse to drop coverage. Such scenarios are the most common causes of personal bankruptcy, and are not at all uncommon. Now, as you picture this family, change their race. Did that make a difference in your attitude?

The hardcore conservative response is: tough, so what? This person failed to take personal responsibility, and I see no reason I should now have to pay for his negligence. (This probably from someone who calls himself Christian, but that’s another story.)

The more compassionate response, regardless of political or religious leaning, is that there must be a way for the richest nation the world has ever known to save this family from their undeserved misfortune. But where do we draw the line between abdication of personal responsibility and compassion?

The hardcore conservative position is that government should do absolutely nothing to protect you from yourself. We must all save for our old age. The problem we face is that very few people have the internal discipline to put aside money for a distant old age when there are so many immediate fundamental needs, and I don’t mean stuff like a plasma TV. The liberal response would be to set up a system that everyone must participate in, requiring regular savings from every paycheck, available only in later years. The liberal believes that there are several such life requirements that are best met by government programs with required participation. Conservatives disagree, but have no suggestions beyond “personal responsibility”. You will note that there is no conservative movement afoot to refuse to participate in health care insurance if the employer provides it, and no objection to using the national highway system, and so on.

Such programs include more than things like Social Security and Medicare. Take a look at automotive safety. The American auto industry fought tooth and nail against every single safety improvement the government ever proposed, often succeeding at delaying implementation long enough that many thousands died because of their intransigence. But it was not just the corporate powers that fought against safety; it was much of the American public as well.

It is a peculiarly American characteristic to resist community actions taken to protect us from our own follies. The perfect example is automotive seat belts. When seat belts were finally mandated, after years of debate, the attitude of a great many Americans was that they would be damned if they would allow the government to force them to use them. The inevitable result was that for some twenty-five years, until seat belt wearing laws were put in place, many thousands of drivers and passengers died in car crashes while sitting on their seat belts. Even today, many fatal crashes are the result of not wearing the seat belt. There don’t seem to be any other countries with this national characteristic of belligerent non-compliance. Is it government interference with your freedoms to require you wear your seat belt? Must we require your personal responsibility even when it kills you, thereby costing us all?

If you were forced to decide whether this attitude was liberal or conservative, the conclusion would have to be that it is conservative. Conservatives in general resist change. Blogger David Wolf (one of the reasonable conservatives, who should write more) says that conservatives should only oppose change for its own sake, which I agree with, but the more common attitude seems to be to avoid all change.

My belief is that the “personal responsibility” doctrine is incapable of managing many of the situations that normally arise in people’s lives, and is inappropriate as a political policy. The plain and simple fact is that we are part of our society whether we like it or not. John Donne was right: no man is an island. We cannot simply withdraw, quit paying taxes, and stop using any of the hundreds of benefits that taxes provide. Nor can we decide that we have no responsibility for our fellows, not if we want to claim the smallest shred of compassion or religious belief.


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