Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What is the proper role of government?

 The debate in this country between Democrats and Republicans over the debt ceiling is really a debate about how to answer one question: What is the proper role of government in a modern society?   Let me offer my answer.

I think we would all agree that the proper role of government is first of all to be a mechanism through which we can join together to prevent those who would do us harm from succeeding.  Here, I am thinking of foreign governments that might wish to invade or harm our country or its interests, terrorists whether foreign or domestic who seek to injury or kill us, and those who engage in criminal activity threatening to take our property or lives. 

Beyond protecting our safety and security, another proper role of government is to help reduce the risk of living in a modern society.  Here, I am thinking of such risks as:

  • Risks to our lives and/or property from natural causes such as tornados, hurricanes, floods, etc.
  • Risks from tainted food, dangerous or unproven drugs and unsafe consumer products
  • Risks to our financial security from corrupt or deceptive practices when we engage in financial transactions
  • Risks to our safety and security from those who would damage our environment out of greed, carelessness or ignorance
  • Risks to our body, spirit and financial security by those who would exploit our labor without providing us with decent working conditions and/or a fair return for our efforts
  • Risks to our ability to avoid poverty and/or access minimum health care in our old age 

After that, the role of the government is to insure opportunity and a level playing field so that each of us can enjoy those most fundamental of rights, the right to enjoy life and liberty and engage in the pursuit of our own happiness provided we do no harm to others.  We should look to government to remove all artificial barriers to advancement, to insist upon our fair and equitable treatment regardless of endeavor, to insure that we do not suffer discrimination for any reason whether race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation, and to provide us with the opportunity to secure an education and to care for our health without which we cannot compete.  Government can be a mechanism through which we can pursue the common good, not to provide advantage to any but rather to guarantee that all will have equal advantage; not to guarantee success for anyone but to guarantee that everyone, the great and the small, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the advantaged and the disadvantaged find in the competition of life a fair chance to make the effort they choose to make and to be judged honestly and rewarded accordingly. 

Finally, government can and should serve as a focal point for collective action, enabling us to achieve goals that are too expensive, risky and/or difficult for the private sector, non-profit organizations or individuals to undertake on their own.  These included expensive infrastructure construction and improvement, risky research and development, the exploration of space and the seas, and so on, where the timelines are long, costs are high, and the future returns on investment are highly doubtful. 

In pursuit of its proper role in a modern society, government may legitimately ask each us to give up a bit of freedom, wealth, and independence, but by doing so we will find the true freedom, the true wealth and the true independence we could not otherwise have imagined.  Those who portray government as an enemy of the people either do not understand the proper role of government or have their own reasons for fearing that the government may, in exercising its proper role, deny them the capability to threaten our safety, security, opportunity, right to fairness and equitable treatment and right to engage in collective action for the common good.

I think most liberals and progressives would agree with my definition of the proper role of government.  I’m equally confident that conservatives and Tea Party supporters would disagree.   That is the battle we are fighting.

Let me add one final thing.  I readily admit that government can never perform the proper role I have identified at the current rate of taxation.  The United States today has one of the lowest levels of taxation of modern economies.  The OECD average was 36.2% of GDP.  U.S. taxes were 27.3% of GDP.  Contrast that to Finland, Norway, France, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark , and other modern societies where taxes were 39% of GDP or higher. 

If we want our government to function effectively and perform its proper role as I have outlined, we must be willing to pay higher taxes, perhaps much higher taxes.  Our only alternative is to accept less, much less, and take on a much higher level of risk of living in a modern society, a level of risk we do not have to endure.  It is our choice.  Ultimately, it is about what kind of country we want.  I want a country that performs its proper role and I’m willing to pay for that.  Are you?

Let me know what you think.  What is the proper role of government?

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