07 February 2011

The Case for Government, twice restated

Since I only watched the last quarter of the Super Bowl, I can't say for certain whether anyone ran a commercial in praise of the federal government as Thomas Frank had halfheartedly hoped. But his Harper's forum may have inspired two columns that appeared in today's Albany paper, both urging the President and his supporters to make a stronger case for government as a positive good. Both Michael Waldman and Ruth Marcus acknowledge that liberals have some catching up to do, as Republicans and other conservatives have had almost no opposition while denouncing government's inefficiency, oppressiveness, etc. Waldman also admits that aversion to government is deeply rooted in our history. Thomas Paine probably said nothing new when he declared government a "necessary evil," though the premise has never been as thoroughly scrutinized as it should be. The entire concept of "necessary evil" is subject to challenge, unless you believe that necessity itself is somehow offensive to human nature. Waldman prefers Franklin Roosevelt's viewpoint -- which I've identified with Theodore -- which doesn't flinch from necessity even when it requires an expansion of state power for the public good. Waldman also admits that government inefficiency in the 1960s and 1970s was in part responsible for the success of Ronald Reagan's "government is the problem" message, noting that Americans do seem to desire the services government provides, but seem also to deem government incompetent to provide them. The case for government, he argues, must always be a case for more efficient government rather than a mere expansion of offices. Marcus, meanwhile, calls for a more strongly stated moral argument for government. Morality, in this context, is defined by human need rather than abstract ideological notions of right and wrong. Taking cues from a recent presidential speech, Marcus sees government as an inescapably necessary supplement to families, community organizations and the private sector. In Obama's words, the object of political morality is "a caring and just society." Government should be another expression of our charitable impulses, even though Republicans see it as a coercive usurpation of individuals' charitable prerogatives. Marcus wants Obama to follow up on such statements and make citizens' collective mutual responsibility for each other's well being a moral issue. She wants the President to affirm the "lasting necessity of government as a moral matter" and thus counter the Republican argument that government is too often an immoral imposition on individual liberty. Without stating it so starkly, Marcus invites a debate between collectively-defined, needs-based morality and individually-defined, liberty-based morality. Such a debate shouldn't be a winner-take-all event. The issue shouldn't be whether we'll be ruled by one morality or the other, but how much weight each relevant moral concern should have in public life. Republicans have missed this point through their insistence that politics is a zero-sum exercise, with every measure designed for the collective good inevitably and irreparably diminishing individual freedom. It can be argued that Democrats do the same thing when they predict that the abolition of even the most redundant regulations will result in increased human suffering. But liberals and progressives don't seem to be opposed to "liberty" in essence. Rather, they'd deny that liberty as they understand it isn't compromised by regulatory government. This is another topic for debate, as is the definition of liberty itself, not to mention the definition of the public good. Before anyone can make the case for expanded government, in an ad or in a column, we need to make a case for the basics first.

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