Friday, January 31, 2014

Debating the Role of Government, I Have the Answer

In his State of the Union address President Obama raised the issue of the proper size and role of government. It is an enduring debate, one that dates back to the inception of our nation. It is a healthy debate, or at least used to be. With the rise of the Tea Party the debate has become distorted, as practitioners of a perverse form of conservatism, one more akin to a rabid form of individualism, blended with a touch of social Darwinism and loaded with logical inconsistencies, has hijacked the Republican Party, purged it of its political diversity, and moved it so far from the political center that it no longer offers the pragmatic solutions sought by those- mainly self-described independents-who dominate the middle of the political landscape.

It this debate on the proper size and role of government, the important starting point is the historical belief in limited government, that government has legitimacy but that our first principles rely on "The People," either individually or through associations, to manage our economic and social lives ourselves.

Three other aspects of the debate must also be considered. One is the notion of federalism, meaning that some of the responsibility of government falls primarily on the States. The second is the social contract, a central tenet of Enlightenment thinking and one of the organizing principles of government and its legitimate role in society. And third is the acknowledgment that there are three main values for government to address, and that the balance among these goals- liberty, equality, and order- is always in flux and that these values are to some extent mutually exclusive; to increase order necessarily means sacrificing some liberty, to increase liberty means sacrificing some equality, and so on.

So having said this we get back to the question of what is the proper size and role of government. No where is this debate more prominent than in the debate over "what to do about the poor," and no where else does this debate acknowledge the complexity of our society and the difficulty of problem solving. For if there was a vibrant middle class, and if there was a healthy degree of socioeconomic mobility, and if there was enough equality of opportunity, and if our education system providing children, no matter what their circumstances, or the same opportunities, then the argument for a limited government role is much easier to make. The last thing anyone wants, liberal or conservative, is for people to become dependent on government for their subsistence.

Debate over government invariably brings out individual prejudices and is invariably connected to one's own personal experiences, meaning that the debate will never be resolved. And that is of course a great thing, because there is nothing worse for a democratic society than to have uniformity in opinion. Liberal science- an expression coined by Jonathan Rauch I believe- dictates that no one has a monopoly of "what is right;" no one has the final say. We cannot, nor should we want, everyone to think conservatively, or liberally, for that manner. Conceding legitimacy to other points of view is ESSENTIAL to our society; we cannot have it any other way.

So let's get to the heart of the matter and allow me to offer a "resolution" to this debate. First assume that our Founders and the documents they created are "scientific" documents. Our Founders were born and lived during the Age of Reason, and as such they assumed imperfect knowledge and the realization that knowledge is not static and that they did not have all the answers, merely a template on which to base the notion that reason dictates a government where the people are sovereign and that government must thus be limited to those things that are necessary. Acknowledging this fact leads us to the only proper conclusion, one that I believe is accepted by the majority of our citizenry, that is, that government action should be based on the ideal of pragmatism. Whenever there is debate over the proper role and size of government, whether it should be doing more or doing less, and what it should be doing, that the proper answer is to choose the solution that is most practical. The pragmatic solution might in some cases be the more conservative one, in some case the more liberal one. It will then be the role of the majority- The Pragmatic Center- to choose which solution has the greatest utility, which has the most likely chance of resolving whatever issue is "on the agenda." It follows from this that there is no proper size of government, no final say on its role.

The Republican Party, by deviating so far from the center, is right now losing the debate on the size and scope of government; none of their answers seems particularly pragmatic. The Democrats don't necessarily offer particularly pragmatic solutions themselves, and to me this is the root cause for the public's negative view of government and politicians.

Broad political participation is also essential for our system to work; common sense tells us that the more people we have involved in civics, the larger will be the center, and the less likely it is that the center will be subject to manipulation by those on either side of the debate.

So the answer to the debate is that there is no answer, it comes down to whatever is most pragmatic and thus has the greater likelihood of working. And isn't that really the way it should be; isn't that the best way to honor our Founders: to have a government that solves problems

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