Monday, February 28, 2011

What Government Is For

First things first: last evening Agnes and I enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Coastal Flats restaurant in Tyson's Corner in the company of fellow local blogger KathyA (of Kathy's Peace) and her husband Dick. The food was excellent, the conversation stimulating, and I have decided that - based on the number of shared interests, likes, dislikes, and experiences we have - Kathy and I are, on different levels of reality, the same person. God help her.

Okay, now down to business.

I plagiarized adopted the title of today's post from a marvelous editorial in yesterday's Washington Post. If you're one of my Facebook friends, you may already have read the editorial from the link I posted there yesterday; if not, you may want to take a few minutes to read it now. Go ahead ... I'll wait while you do.

This editorial does a great job of reducing the current bloviation from the Left and Right about government spending to the essential question that lies at the heart of the debate: what is government for? It's not as simple a question as you might think.

The Constitution is not clear on the issue, regardless of what shouting battalions of Tea Party wingnuts would have you believe. The Constitution does list a few of the things the federal government has the power to do (such as collect taxes to pay for everything else, oddly enough), but is largely a guide to the organization of the government as opposed to a laundry list of its powers. What the government is for, as a general issue of political and social philosophy, is summarized in the Preamble to the Constitution, which lists these "fors" (if I may use the term oddly):

Form a More Perfect Union;

Establish Justice;

Insure Domestic Tranquility;

Provide for the Common Defence;

Promote the General Welfare; and,

Secure the Blessings of Liberty.

Six things the Founders thought the government was "for." The devil, of course, is in the details ... what did they really mean when they wrote all these highfalutin' words back in the 18th century, and what do they mean in the 21st?

Take promote the general welfare. What did the founders have in mind? A few things seem obvious, and the Washington Post editorial offers a few common sense thoughts: "government should ensure that no one goes hungry, homeless or uncared for when sick;" and, "elements of a healthy, humane society that only government can provide: A safe supply of food and medicine. Clean air and water, national parks, a capital the country can be proud of."

Provide for the common defense is pretty straightforward - the government is responsible for defending us from those who would do us ill. And, regardless of what the idealists among us would wish, the world is full of people who will not love us if we just stop doing something they don't like ... the world has many more Hitlers, Chavezes, Stalins, and Ahmedinejads than it does Gandhis, Mother Teresas, and Pope John XXIII's. And, by the way, would you rather have 50 separate armies with all their checkpoints along the interstate that you had to negotiate when you went to visit Auntie Em? I thought not. One Army (and Navy, and Air Force), organized and funded by a central government, just makes sense.

I could go on, but I think I'll just summarize by saying that reasonable people can agree to disagree on what specific things the government is for. But reasonable people can also agree that we have to decide between the things that are essential and defensible, and the things that (in a perfect world) would be good for the government to do (support the arts, for instance). As the Post editorial says in conclusion:

"as a matter of politics and fairness, some of the nice-to-haves are going to have to take a hit: There are worthy things that government is no longer going to be able to do."

Give it some thought. It's a crucial issue, and you won't get any good discussion from the ideologues shouting from the fringes with their clue chutes up and locked. You need to understand, decide, and let your elected reprehensives know.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


1 comment:

KathyA said...

Such a good time!! We felt that we've known you both for a while. and God help me indeed! I should say the same goes for you. Have you been having hot flashes, by the way?

"Pope John XXIII"??? You didn't, however name those two who will not be named, did you?? One we feel so strongly about, we'll not fly out of the airport known to us only as 'DC'.

With all its supposed ambiguity, the Preamble is still one of the most beautiful 'mission statements' I've ever read.