Saturday, January 14, 2012

What is the role of government?

What is the role of government?
That question, above all, separates the political silos that span the spectrum from communist to free market capitalists.  The communist model includes central planning and distribution where the government provides a societal pool of goods and services available to all no matter of rank or station.  Theoretically, the government makes sure all goods and resources are distributed evenly based on everyone contributing at government controlled wages and prices.  The communist government ensures wages are paid, healthcare, pensions, and education are provided, and production quotas are met.  The state owns all industry, controls the media, and will mandate birth and population controls.  In the free market, prices are determined by supply and demand and the state is limited to tax collection, and enforcement of private ownership and contracts. Property is privately held and all production means are under private control. In the free market economy only the market participants regulate the markets. The government plays a neutral role in its administration and legislation of economic activity, neither limiting it nor actively promoting it. Socially, the free market is often linked to libertarianism and freedom of choice for citizens.
What about the USA? What about our representative Republic?  Our system of capitalism is a far cry from communism and not as close to the free market as some would hope.  Since the adoption of our Constitution on September 17, 1787 and over the course of this country’s history, the role of government has expanded during times of existential threats and to correct social injustices; sometimes for the better and sometimes not.  Excessive government intervention has often occurred under the guise of national security: the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Palmer Raids, Japanese internment, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and the Patriot Act were all examples of the Federal Government expanding its authority as a response to real and imagined threats.  Often governments will rise to defend the rights and opportunities of the general populace against the ruling class or industrial barons.  Theodore Roosevelt, America’s first great Progressive President, and Woodrow Wilson were at the forefront of the Progressive Era from 1880 – 1920 government, where Democrat and Republican alike, enacted new legislation to improve education and food, drug, and work place safety, fight corruption, enable labor unions, break up monopolies and oligarchies, and improve medicine, treatment, and healthcare.  Of course to pay for all of this, the government needed funds, and those funds came in the form of taxation, specifically the 16th Amendment that created the Income Tax.  Of course not all Progressive ideas were in the best interests of the nation including forced birth control, eugenics, prohibition, and immigration controls.  Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society also led significant expansions of government including the establishment of the Social Security Administration, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Civil Rights Act, and it was the Republican presidency of Richard Nixon that gave us the EPA and Title IX in the 1970’s.  The power of the Federal Government in the form of regulations started to diminish in the late 70’s through 2008.  Airlines, banking, and environmental regulations were weakened or flat out eliminated to spur economic growth and promote free market principles, all with mixed results.
That is a very concise review of some of the major points in government expansion in the 20th century and the most recent contraction of some of those powers.  But should government be providing healthcare coverage and pensions?  Should the government be acting as the defender of social justice to level the playing field for the disabled, minorities, the poor, and the persecuted?  Why does the government offer rebates and subsidies to certain industries or businesses? Should government let the market manage itself?  Wouldn’t competition be the best police by allowing the consumer to choose?  Are monopolies a threat?  At what point does government intrusion into the lives of citizens became excessive? 
The Constitution is marvelous document and it up to our courts to decide with the support of a multitude of case law to interpret the legality of rulings against the law of the land.  The key thing in any judicial ruling is interpretation; I mean how can a judge know what the Constitutional framers intended?  Is a 200+ year old document relevant?
While not legally pertinent, the preamble of the Constitution offers what I believe is the spirit of the document and the role of government.  Still open to interpretation, the preamble imagines a land where the government enables its citizens to live freely without overly encumbering them:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
My interpretation can be boiled down to these highlights:
·         Defense of the country is the responsibility of the federal government
·         Government would ensure that its citizens were not victimized
·         The federal government would prevent intrastate and interstate conflict
·         The federal government would protect its citizens from external and internal forces bent on harming the republic.
But what real power does the government legally have? Can the government mandate that citizens purchase health insurance?  Can government incarcerate its citizens without charges during times of war?  Can the government order a woman to get an unnecessary ultrasound before proceeding with her legally protected right to abortion? At what point does the government assume the general welfare supersedes the individual right?
There is significant distrust in government today (Tea Party) and the signifcant distrust in the market (OWS).  Does the government create an unnatural imbalance when it offers subsidies or rebates to certain companies in certain industries?  Did the government have the power to intercede in the automotive industry?
I am a left leaning post-modern with progressive tendencies who does like walking on the beach but hates Pina Coladas. I want my government to provide for my defense, but I will not sacrifice my liberty in the process.  My government must fight for the little guy against the power of the corporation.  I do not want my government interfering with a woman’s rights nor do I want it telling a company where it can make a product as long as it is going to do it safely.  I worry that every time the government steps in to right a wrong it will have unintentional consequences, but I am willing more often than not to take that chance.  I want my government to do what is necessary to protect this planet and make its citizens competitive in this hyper-connected world.  And I want my government to not be wasteful.
This is a complex situation.  Socioeconomic policies and theories when looked through the purest lens in a laboratory never look like what they become in the wild.  It is up to government to tweak the policies and systems so that they are adaptable to the times and environment.   I like my government, I don’t sweat the little stuff but I worry about the big stuff.  But most of all, I want a government that allows me to do what I just did, agree and dissent.  And for the record, I trust social conservatives and free market fanatics the least. I don’t trust my government and I don’t trust the free market because they are run by men, and men are far from perfect.

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