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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

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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