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thoughts on government

Over at FB, a friend posted the following meme:



This fascinated me, so much so that two days later I'm still thinking about it. It's a Reagan quote, which makes me think that this is supposed to be some kind of conservative ideal or something to show that conservatives are right. Here's the thing, though: I suspect most liberals would agree with Reagan's idea here, perhaps with just a small tweak.

All things being equal, I'm hard-pressed to imagine anyone who would want the government to run her life. It's big, it's blundering, and it's generally not very forgiving. Republicans are famous for this, and while American conservatism today usually doesn't live up to that ideal very well, the idea that Republicans want the government as small and unobtrusive as possible. The way I walways thought about it, Republicans want government to get out of the way as much as possible. Depending on the Republican, they might make exceptions for the national defense or the definition of marriage, but that's the basic idea.

Here's the thing, though: in my experience Democrats also don't want government to interfere more than it needs to. The difference is that Democrats think companies and non-profits and simply an unequal distribution of resources are just as much a danger that needs fighting as anything al-Qaeda has pulled off. If we'd worked out a way to give everyone the money necessary to meet their basic needs (food, shelter, healthcare, education, etc.) I'd be more than willing to shrink the government down so all it did was keep the borders secure and make sure the interstate highways were in working order, and maybe a few other extremely basic things like that. I'm actually not a fan of big government.

But Utopia's just a small town upstate, not any good description of how things actually work. Companies exist to make a profit, not help people or even treat them fairly. People have their own biases and will put their own family and friends' comfort over the basic needs of a complete stranger. And everyone comes with their own biases and ideologies, and will tend to act in a way that lives out those ideologies. This is just human nature and I don't know that it's particularly immoral that people act this way. (Not particularly saintly, either, but certainly not heinous.)

In light of this, I think a lot of the things Republicans consider "interfering" is protecting. Let's take one example: the insurance mandate and the blow-up over whether religious groups needed to pay for insurance covering procedures that went against the group's beliefs. I believe access to health care is a right, perhaps not legally but definitely philosophically. I also believe that each individual (not her employer) ought to be the one deciding which medical procedures she'll actually have. The medical system is expensive but also complicated, and so I don't think it's reasonable to ask any individual to navigate it on her own; it needs systemic reform, and it needs to be providing universal access. Both of those are big enough problems that you need a group action, organizing and implementing a system that makes at least basic health care affordable for every one. And this implementation needs to respect individual dignity and autonomy. That means that if I'm poor and I'm sick, I shouldn't have to rely on some charity that might have special requirements. I also shouldn't have to face special requirements to access government care that middle- or upper-class people don't face. (I'm thinking of people on Medicare who have to prove they were raped in order to get an abortion, or where the government says they can't buy certain kinds of food, or requires them to pass a drug test before they get tax dollars.

This all falls under the rubric of protecting people. The threat here isn't a terrorist cell but a company or individual or church or other institution imposing its ideology on other people. As I said, I can't imagine anything more natural in the world than a church using its resources to advance its agenda. Ditto for a company or civic group or even a wealthy individual. The way the government protects us, and in particular "the least of these," is by putting limits on what those groups can actually do.

This meme clarified for me a basic difference between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives seem to think the best way to get at liberty is by leaving people to their own devices. Liberals, I think, see threats other than national security threats that people need protecting from (or at least an organized, collective way to protect themselves), and they recognize that the best road to liberty often involves laying down some ground rules establishing just how much of public resources any one individual can claim. If society was equal enough that no one could take away what his neighbor truly needed, I'd be all for shrinking government down to the size of a breadbox. But, reality being what it is, I don't see that happening any time soon.

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Comments

roh_wyn
Jul. 9th, 2012 07:18 pm (UTC)
Both of those are big enough problems that you need a group action, organizing and implementing a system that makes at least basic health care affordable for every one. And this implementation needs to respect individual dignity and autonomy.

But why is government the best instrument for implementing universal access with dignity? To me, it seems like government (based as it is on political considerations) rarely operates without bias, and therefore, that respect for individual dignity does not happen, even with the government involved in public health/protection/whatever. IMO, the more personal autonomy you cede to an institution (as a sort of quid pro quo for institutional assistance), the less free you are as an individual.

I'm not a Republican, and in fact, I'm not anything close to a standard-issue conservative, but I find the Democrats' insistence that government is benevolent and a source for good somewhat laughable.

In fact, I'd say this is the one area where the people in the Tea Party and those in the Occupy movement seem closely aligned: they both recognize that the vast majority of bad things happening in America are because of the government, not in spite of it.
roh_wyn
Jul. 9th, 2012 07:34 pm (UTC)
I should add that I'm not inherently opposed to government as an institution. It has its uses, and there are things that government is genuinely good at, action plans and regulations that have actually worked and made the world better. (The Marshall Plan for post-war reconstruction of Europe comes immediately to mind, for example).

I think words like "big" and "small" are red herrings. The real distinction ought to be between "good" government and "bad." Unfortunately, I think we're in a 50-year cycle of one bad government after another, and that drives my cynicism.
gwynnyd
Jul. 9th, 2012 08:20 pm (UTC)
Wha...?

"the more personal autonomy you cede to an institution (as a sort of quid pro quo for institutional assistance), the less free you are as an individual. "

Well, sure, but many extreme conservatives right now do not want us to cede our rights to an institution, they want to DEMAND the government allow any institution to limit our individual rights whether we cede them or not. That can't be right, either.

I'm not thinking just health care, though they certainly want to limit and regulate the right of a person to manage their fertility on their own. I find it very strange how they are totally against government regulating anything unless it involves women or sex where they want to micromanage it all.

Does a person have a right to breath clean air and drink clean water? Yes? I hope you agree. If yes, does a corporation's right to make money trump the individual's right to a clean environment? Should every person who can afford it have to invest in their own water and air treatment system to filter out all the pollutants that corporations want to be allowed to release without consequences to their profits? Do their own tests on meat and produce and prepared foods to see if it's fit to eat? What if an individual can't afford their own state of the art filtering or inspection systems? Do they just get sick? Die? Have many sickly children (since they can't be allowed to decide to not have children either)?

Who better to regulate these sorts of issues than a government? Roh wyn, where do YOU draw the line between a government charged with protecting all the citizens doing it's job and one that is intruding too far?

celandineb
Jul. 9th, 2012 08:45 pm (UTC)
Also, government IS US. This is something that gets forgotten or ignored or dismissed. WE CHOOSE THE GOVERNMENT, either directly or indirectly. If it's not working, it's our fault.
roh_wyn
Jul. 9th, 2012 08:47 pm (UTC)
If it's not working, it's our fault.

Absolutely, but the current rate of incumbency (in, say, Congress, for example) suggests we're not doing a very good job at keeping the government accountable.

(As a practical matter, the government works for itself, not for the people who elect it, and this is (or should be) a source of pain for all of us).
roh_wyn
Jul. 9th, 2012 08:45 pm (UTC)
If yes, does a corporation's right to make money trump the individual's right to a clean environment?

It's not a zero sum game though, is it? It's not "corporation makes money by polluting our air and water" OR "government regulates corporation to ensure clean air and water." Both these paradigms can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way. But they don't, because government is frequently bad at delivering unbiased, efficient solutions, even for environmental problems.

For example, let's say corporation A makes a widget that everyone buys. Let's say, for example, that the widget is a cost-effective solution to a common household problem.

The manufacture of the widget releases 10 ppb of chemical X into the ground water. The EPA, concerned about pollution, does a series of studies and determines that X is safe at levels of 100 ppb or less. Corporation A, having met the safety standard by an order of magnitude, continues to make and sell the widget.

Politician Smith, now up for reelection, decides he's going to campaign on a green platform. After he's reelected, he makes a token effort to lobby the EPA to change the standards for X. The EPA, feeling political pressure, alters the standards for X to 5 ppb or less. The EPA, Smith and the government celebrate winning one for the environment.

Corporation A, meanwhile, has to rebuild all its factories and manufacturing assembly to deliver the widget while also producing less than 5 ppb of X. It turns out this can't be done without a retool that will cost millions of dollars. This increases the cost of the widget to consumers by 50%. People stop buying the widget, A stops making the widget, ultimately shutting down its manufacturing operations and laying off or firing most of its workforce.

In other words, everyone (except Smith) loses.

My point is that regulation is good, but too much regulation, especially unnecessary and ill-considered regulation is bad. Moreover, the government is renowned for doing things in a half-hearted and politically motivated way. Take, for example, the story about the recent camo uniform snafu. Basically, the government spent $5B on camo uniforms that made soldiers more visible in the field, and it was all motivated by politics.
gwynnyd
Jul. 9th, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC)
"Both these paradigms can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way"

And that's what ought to be happening.

The solution to the problem is neither disbanding or gutting the EPA, or the FDA, or the FAA nor letting corporations do whatever they like - it's making sure the decisions are *mutually* beneficial.

What if politician Brown gets elected and lobbies for the standards of chemical X to be raised to 1000 ppm because he is friends with the CEO of a corporation who puts out effluent at 500 ppm and does not want to install equipment to reduce his pollution to the 100 ppm standard. He makes a huge deal of how relaxing this standard will bring jobs to his area, no one has proven that 100 ppm is the limit of what is safe after all. It passes, the plant gets built and proceeds to churn out 500 ppm of chemical X, which 5 years from now starts coming out in the groundwater 50 miles downstream and causes a die off of food fish and an upsurge in cancer of certain kinds, and studies determine that it will take another 30 years for this chemical to flush itself out of the groundwater chain. Rather than pay for a clean up of what it caused, the company goes bankrupt and starts over in Uganda leaving the clean up to the taxpayers, and the area without jobs anyway, and Brown still in office because the CEO is still funneling Brown money to get the still useful widget imported at a favorable rate and the company is still putting out 500 ppm of chemical X in Uganda and poisoning the water there.

Would it not have been better for the regulations to have done their job in the first place?

Somewhere between punitive-and-impossible and lax-and-irresponsible there has to be a compromise position that is a win-win.



Edited at 2012-07-09 09:38 pm (UTC)
roh_wyn
Jul. 9th, 2012 10:03 pm (UTC)
LOL. In my original comment, I was going to suggest that Company A would just move and set up shop in China, but my phone rang and I got distracted. And then you beat me to it. ;)

Somewhere between punitive-and-impossible and lax-and-irresponsible there has to be a compromise position that is a win-win.

Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. But that requires government to be responsive, and there's currently little push (outside of grassroots movements like Occupy, for example) to force the government to be responsive.

With a corporation, consumer behavior tends to provoke an immediate response. For example, where I live, a whole lot of people threatened to boycott a big-box retailer over the retailer's endorsement of an anti-gay marriage candidate for governor. A week later, the retailer retracted the endorsement.

Would it not have been better for the regulations to have done their job in the first place?

Definitely. The problem is, there's a difference between good regulation and bad regulation. I think we can all agree that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination in employment, is a good form of regulation. It allows the government to intervene to remove significant social/economic inequality by setting a baseline for behavior, i.e. an employer cannot turn away a qualified employee because of race, gender, religion, national origin, etc. It was also easy for employers to implement, because race- and gender-based discrimination were not contributing to the bottom line anyway.

But what if Title VII, in an attempt to level the playing field, had gone further? What if it said that every employer with more than 50 employees had to hire a certain number of women, or a certain number of minorities, etc? That would have led to an increase in the transaction costs associated with hiring, and it probably would have a negative impact on most corporations. Ultimately, I suspect (since this is a hypothetical) that the whole attempt to alleviate discrimination would have failed miserably.

My point is that when government makes contributions to society that improve our lives (whether with respect to the environment, health care or social equality), but it comes with a fairly large potential for overreach that can't be ignored.
gwynnyd
Jul. 9th, 2012 11:30 pm (UTC)
"My point is that when government makes contributions to society that improve our lives (whether with respect to the environment, health care or social equality), but it comes with a fairly large potential for overreach that can't be ignored."

I never suggested otherwise. My instinct is to go with a bit more regulation (or at least uniform enforcement of regulations we already have) since that usually provides a potential to haver a better long-term outcome for a wider range of people because corporations are very short-sighted and bottom-line oriented.

I think you are saying that you'd prefer less regulation and more corporate autonomy.

I still don't know where you would draw the line between too much and too little for either case.

For example, what about this case: http://www.addictinginfo.org/2012/02/09/new-hampshire-republicans-seek-to-repeal-lunch-break-laws/

Do you think that companies would "do the right thing" and allow all workers a lunch break if it were not mandated by law? After all the sponsor of the bill said about it, " If I was to deny one of my employees a break, I would be in a very bad position with the company’s human resources representative." If it wasn't illegal to deny a break, why should an HR rep care? They exist to make sure the company follows the law in regards to how they treat their employees. An HR department is not like a union, who is supposed to look after the worker's interests at all costs.

(Caveat - I am not particularly pro-union in all respects, though it is readily apparent that many of the things we take for granted about the modern workplace only became possible due to union activism.)
roh_wyn
Jul. 10th, 2012 01:27 am (UTC)
I think you are saying that you'd prefer less regulation and more corporate autonomy.

I think I prefer more autonomy generally, not just for corporations, but for individuals as well. In my mind, both sides of the political spectrum pay lip service to individual choice while ultimately working to reduce the amount of choice we have, sometimes for the wrong reasons.

Do you think that companies would "do the right thing" and allow all workers a lunch break if it were not mandated by law?

Yes, I think they would, and here's why. Any successful company is only as good as the people who work for it, and there are innumerable studies showing that productivity improves when the workforce is happy and well-rested. So any company with a long range view to its bottom line will necessarily provide lunch breaks, paid vacation, etc. Many corporations routinely provide benefits they're not required by law to provide, after all. It's practically a necessity in a competitive workforce.

I'm not saying corporations are more benevolent than the government. I'm saying that the bottom line is an easy to understand and transparent goal for business, and in the long term, that goal inures to the benefit of the consumer as well.
gwynnyd
Jul. 10th, 2012 01:50 am (UTC)
Your naivety about corporate greed is is touching. Unskilled, minimum, or low wage workers, who would be those most likely to be impacted by such legislation, are easy for any company to come by. They do not have to be happy and well-rested, only productive. When they are no longer productive, because they are not happy and well rested, they are easily replaced by people who are desperate for any job, even one that does not provide a lunch break.

*If* we had a situation where we had more jobs than workers, this might be a consideration. As it is, with several workers for any given job, corporations who are under no obligation to provide extra benefits will not do so because the bottom line is an easy to understand and transparent goal.
roh_wyn
Jul. 10th, 2012 02:24 am (UTC)
Your naivety about corporate greed is is touching.

I could say the same thing for your belief in the ability of government to help people (instead of making them eternally dependent on institutional assistance), but I don't see the need to engage in mockery.

Basically, I feel like this comes down to an argument about whether a pillow is still a pillow if it's filled with rocks instead of feathers. It all turns on what you need the pillow for.

Edited at 2012-07-10 02:25 am (UTC)
gwynnyd
Jul. 10th, 2012 04:49 am (UTC)
I don't know why you think I have an unfailing "belief in the ability of government to help people" not be independent. I don't at all.

All *I* want is a level playing field - to find that win-win balance point. I never said, or thought, that it would be an easy balance to find. I think we do agree there.

The original question was, does government have the ability/authority to protect people *without* running their lives? It very much depends on what you consider to be the "protection" that government ought to be providing. Is it only to have overwhelming military might deployed around the world to enforce our interests? Is it only to enforce a specific morality with governmental boundaries? I don't think it is *only* anything.

"Protection" should absolutely not be nannying nor should it be micromanaging. On the other hand, "protection" implies that a complete hands-off stance to both people and corporations would lead to a whole 'nother set of problems. I do not particularly want to live in a country run by the strongest allowed to do whatever they can to suit their own interests nor do I want to live somewhere where no individual choice is allowed, because that implies that there is still a "strongest" enforcing a single view. I'm quite sure you do want to live in under either of those conditions as well.

People - and corporations and government - are absolutely capable of making their own decisions and ought to be allowed to do so *within broad outlines* while trying to keep an eye out for both the short and long term implications of their decisions, not just on themselves but also on the impact of their decisions on other people and entities and society and the planet as a whole.

No, that is not easy to achieve and is quite utopian. However, we do live in a society where if some regulations push corporations towards looking at more than their short-term bottom line, *and* some checks and balances are put on regulators so corporations can drive the economy, *and* people are assured of the minimum necessary to allow them to contribute more than they take from society, *and* governments are responsive to the will of the people while protecting minority interests, then I have some hope for my and everyone's children and grandchildren.

Of course things will get out of whack quite often trying to balance so many factors. I do not think the "correction" for an imbalance in any one or combination of those factors should be to swing the pendulum past the center to the extreme other side bypassing the center entirely. It's as if some people think society runs on some sort of strange equation that can be balanced only by weighting it an equal amount the other way for some length of time until it all cancels out. If the ideal is at 0 and the pendulum has swung to -6, the correction should be +6 to bring it back to 0 and not +12 to somehow compensate the people in the unfavored zone and punish the people who had been favored. Where to set 0 will certainly end up an imprecise and variable point, probably better said as 0 +/- 2, and give us all something to endlessly debate.

To go back to something you said up thread, "But why is government the best instrument for implementing universal access with dignity? " Do you think unregulated corporations would do it any better?
roh_wyn
Jul. 10th, 2012 05:01 am (UTC)

All *I* want is a level playing field - to find that win-win balance point. I never said, or thought, that it would be an easy balance to find. I think we do agree there.

Yes, we do agree, at least on the basic premise, i.e. that a level playing field is important. I also like your point re: corporations and government (or other institutions) acting as effective checks on each other. I think that's the correct approach, but unfortunately, it's not the regime that actually exists.

The problem I see is largely a political one. The way the political wind blows seems to throw the equation out of balance (on either side), and it's my view (perhaps naive) that government is more influenced by changes in the political winds than corporations are. Because corporations are motivated largely by bottom line considerations, their decision-making is predictable and leads to predictable outcomes in the future as well.

That doesn't necessarily mean I believe corporations are not greedy. It's just that their greed makes more sense to me than the institutional greed of government. *shrugs*
roh_wyn
Jul. 10th, 2012 05:09 am (UTC)
It very much depends on what you consider to be the "protection" that government ought to be providing.

I see the lack of a level playing field as essentially a lack of information, or an imbalanced distribution of information, if you will. People need information to make informed choices, about education, health care, housing, saving money, child welfare, etc.

Protection, in this context, implies regulation that either corrects for the lack of information or acts as a proxy for that information. For example, most states require professionals (physicians, dentists, lawyers, teachers, plumbers, hair dressers, etc) to be licensed. In most cases, this is both necessary and proper. You can't possibly vet every doctor in the state to determine if they can do their job. The state license provides the consumer with confidence that the licensed physician has met at least the basic level of competence required by the state.

But for some professionals, the market provides the same information, and at considerably lower cost. For example, I have no idea why states license beauticians and hair dressers. The market provides an effective corrective mechanism in that if you get a bad haircut, you're never going back to that hair dresser.

Basically, we live in a world with far more regulation than is really necessary, IMO.

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