22 June 2011: Asking which side you’re on with government is a false choice

Asking which side you’re on with government is a false choice

After the debacle of the Articles of Confederation, the Founders understood the necessity of a strong central government despite their experience with England’s heavy-handed rule.

When writing the Constitution and creating our system of government, they debated fiercely its size, power, and shape. Over time, it has become the quintessential American debate.

Thus, the ongoing debate is fit and proper, though those today on freedom’s soapbox (e.g., Tea Partyers) are quite selective about which areas of federal power they are and are not OK with. It’s really just one: economics. Oftentimes they’re hunky-dory with federal intrusion into other policy areas: e.g., marriage (DOMA), spying on American citizens (PATRIOT Act), and drug usage (criminalizing the usage of marijuana).

With regard to the distribution of power within our federal system, the Constitution itself can be interpreted to support conflicting stances. In Article I, it gives Congress a broad umbrella to supersede state laws vis-à-vis the “commerce clause,” but in the 10th Amendment it holds all powers not delegated to the federal government are the domain of the states. Of course, that went out the window with the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision.

Unlike 21st-century anti-government types, our Founders did not hold to the belief that government is intrinsically evil. We only need to look at the Declaration of Independence in which it is written “Governments are instituted among men,” a passive-voice construct for “Men create government because, well, they need it.” But then, men create economic systems as opposed to trees, gold, and wolves.

While government needs watching to insure it doesn’t outgrow its britches, hence Thomas Jefferson’s preference for newspapers without government rather than the other way around, in and of itself government is necessary. To be sure, government has a specific purpose: “to protect these rights,” which Thomas Jefferson explains “that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The structure of the Constitution itself is telling. The first three articles deal with the tripartite system—legislative, executive, and judicial—while articles four through seven deal with broader issues including the supremacy of the national government, admitting new states, amendments, and ratification. States’ rights, for which the current debate serves as proxy, don’t get mentioned until the 10th Amendment, added four years later.

Today’s debate about the size of government serves as well as a proxy for a nebulous philosophical one: individualism v. collectivism for which there is no model in the natural world. Once entering Ayn Rand’s dystopian everyman-is-an-island, Mad Max world (read “The Virtue of Selfishness”), the bogeymen—socialism and communism—enter stage left.

Capitalism, a term coined by Karl Marx, is an unnatural construct and relatively new concoction. Ironically, capitalism, which purports to be a free enterprise system, contains within itself collectivist manifestations: They’re called chambers of commerce and corporations. Try to climb the corporate ladder to the beat of your own drum and you will find yourself a person with no country.

We Americans are a pragmatic not ideological people, a philosophy that developed among our ancestors who were busy eking a living out of the wilderness. Thus pragmatism is in our national DNA with the result we like to see what works and what doesn’t especially with regard to our economic survival.

The 19th century witnessed enormous growth in corporate power. The rise of the factory system and the ubiquitous spread of the railroad (read “The Octopus”) led to the Gilded Age (see Mark Twain). Soon after, the oil industry (Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller) and the processed food industry (read “The Jungle”) rose, and the concentration of power and wealth—am I being redundant?—burgeoned.

In the 20th century, checks and balances, e.g. the Glass-Steagall Act, were put into place. In the 21st century, we seem to have regressed.

In such a dystopian state, captains of industry and finance become heroes, not the workers whose sweat and blood make it possible. That’s the ultimate reality in Rand’s brave new world.

To frame the debate about government in a bi-polar fashion is unsatisfactory because it presents a false choice since it’s not a question of either/or, but about the balance between the private and the public.

Government as an institution is in itself not evil. Nor is capitalism as a system in itself evil. Both contain the potential for abuse, though only people with power, whether in government or in the corporate world, behave unethically.

To reduce the debate to a “which side are you on” dichotomy is not only simplistic, but it is also a curious way of posing the question given it’s the title of a song written by Florence Patton Reece in 1931 about organizing workers into unions. But then, as studies show, history is no longer a strong point for many Americans.

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