I fully understand the worries many among us have concerning Big Government. I do so, even though, at the same time, I also belong to the crowd that demands so-called “free stuff” (not really free, of course) from our government. How is it possible that I straddle this stark divide in our political mentalities?
It’s a matter of life experience:
I have been the victim of high-handed government cruelty and stupidity many times. Likewise, I have been the victim of equally high-handed cruelty and stupidity from the private sector. In a few cases, however, I have also been a beneficiary of that past social reform which – somewhat – shaped our government into the helpful force in our lives which our founders intended it to be when they insisted that, to ensure our “unalienable Rights” (“among these Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”) governments must (A) ensure these rights and (B) “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
In a manner which rings urgent and true again, today, the founders continued: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations … evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
All I can say to our long dead founders: Kudos!
I fully agree with our founders’ idea that we, the people, have the right to replace or alter a miscreant government. I also fully agree with their notion of the role government should play in our lives, further expressed in the Preamble to the United States Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
When reading this closely, you will detect the phrase “promote the general Welfare.” Our founders knew that the general welfare – which is to say, universal well-being – isn’t something the private sector will properly provide, since in the private sector conflicting goals and powerful bullies easily arise and greed for personal material profit often trumps all else. Those who lord it over everybody else from positions of economic possession and authority rarely have the necessary empathy or incentive to care for the less fortunate. The incentive to care for all and abandon nobody, is always strongest at the bottom of society. And the economically weak members of society can assert their needs and wishes only through political, not financial, means. Hence the role of government in “the general Welfare” of our nation.
And, yet, as history is showing us once again in this time of our lives, government can become corrupted by rich bullies from the private sector working hand in hand with two-timing politicians. It then becomes the task of the disenfranchised to take a critical look at their government and rise up “to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
This discovery held true back then, and it holds true now, even if our methods may have to be different.
Let’s take a closer look at the role government should play, and then at how to make it do so, and how to safeguard it against swinging over to that high-handed extreme where government itself, even when it is not corrupted by the private sector it should keep honest, can become the problem:
A case which is on everyone’s mind, these days, is healthcare. So, let’s use it first.
It has become obvious that, when the financing of healthcare is left to the patients plus a profit-seeking private sector, people whose failing health has put them into dire financial straits can’t pay for the inflated prices of a profit-seeking healthcare system. Many or most American bankruptcies result from health crises. Here we have the age-old situation of a sick member of a tribe, or a wounded soldier, who needs the help of his tribe members or fellow soldiers to survive, because he or she is temporarily out of commission. By rescuing our downed fellow, we ultimately don’t only help that fellow but ourselves, because – after their recovery – the formerly downed members of society can themselves contribute to the general welfare again and help perhaps you or me when, next time, it is our turn to stumble in life. Caring for one another like this, therefore not only let’s us all sleep more easily and feel good about ourselves and our fellow human beings, it also makes our society and its economy stronger. This principle not only applies to healthcare but other things like financial security, justice, and education, as well. Therefore, a true government of the people, by the people, and for the people – a government which dutifully fulfills its role of ensuring universal well-being among us – must play a critical role in all these areas of life. A profit-seeking private sector just won’t do this, while government, which does not need to make a profit, can do this.
Also, while in a small tribe or village, where everybody knows each other, people may be able to help each other out without needing to form institutions or a government, in large, anonymous societies, formal institutions must fill the gap. Private charities can sometimes form such institutions, but they have often been overwhelmed during hard times, and they can also discriminate against some people without any recourse for the victims. Governmental institutions are the better solution, because – through elected and accountable government – we can both form and control them.
The nature of our government then becomes very important. So, how can we negotiate the fine line between an overreaching (or even corrupt) government which becomes a problem in our lives and a helpful government which ensures the universal well-being for its people?
For this, let’s look at some successes and failures:
Back when our country’s economy and society was rapidly collapsing during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt convinced the powers of the time (including many in our money-aristocracy) of the necessity of large and far reaching emergency measures. He invested vast sums of federal money (which the federal government can always create out of thin air, if it needs to) in huge job creation programs, financial rescue of the elderly (Social Security), and mortgage relief to millions of farmers and homeowners, to name a few things. He also instituted stiff taxes on the rich (to prevent inflation after so much government-infused new money), lots of commerce regulations, as well as a federal minimum wage (even a kind of maximum income), and the right of workers to organize unions (so workers’ voices could also be heard in their places of work — a way for the private sector to self-regulate, needing no government intrusion).
Later, Lyndon B. Johnson, in his Great Society add-on to the New Deal, created Medicare and Medicaid, giving many millions of previously excluded Americans access to healthcare. The result of all these measures was America’s Golden Age, a time when unprecedented numbers of Americans were flourishing, not just because of a booming economy which resulted from turning so many destitute people back into consumers with money to pay for goods and services, but also because of a fairer distribution of wealth and income which created a lot of overall happiness. This happiness was showcased in so many Hollywood Movies that America became the promised land for people around the globe. For many Americans (especially whites), society back then was more caring than rapacious, made so by all these governmental measures which, to so many of them, gave access to society’s wealth and placed limits on private sector bullies who want to take everything for themselves. On the whole, it was a great success, to which many of us today look back with nostalgia.
Sadly, it also had a built-in failure: that of its eventual dismantling by those robber billionaires who didn’t like the New Deal’s inroads on their accustomed god-king status, or the way it hampered their ransacking of the nation. They whittled away at the new system with the help of bribable politicians, bribed with the oodles of money such parasites sitting on top of an economy have available to them. They also invested in false-narrative-producing think tanks and alternative-voices-killing media mergers, to the effect that all Americans alive today have their heads filled with all sorts of economic and political nonsense, which is hard to overcome, and which forms the motivating force behind all my writing (the desire to overcome it, that is).
Here is another quick look at how government can do right or go wrong: financial security in this day and age. In the U.S., we are far behind our peers. Unemployment insurance doesn’t last long, and then you fall into a black hole. The verdict: in this area of need, our government currently does not do enough.
Let’s compare to one of our peer nations: Germany. In Germany, you also can count on unemployment insurance to hold you over for a while. After this, a welfare program takes over which pays your housing costs and health insurance plus a flat rate (around $400 per person) for other expenses like food and transportation. This is usually less than your unemployment insurance payout was, possibly much less, but it provides a secure bottom floor and lasts forever.
This type of welfare bases itself on an assured minimal income set in law. An overly low social security payout for a retired person can likewise be topped up to this level. Germany clearly outdoes the U.S. in the area of financial security. It is not perfect, though. For one thing, a bureaucrat in the unemployment office can do some funky calculations which reduce your unemployment insurance payout to a ridiculously low level below what you really should be getting (and below the described welfare level, thus denying you what you worked for). And, while you can file a complaint, the complaint goes to the same institution, which leaves you with having to go to court if this other office in the same institution highhandedly denies your appeal. Naturally, in such a situation, any human being feels violated by his or her government — a big source for disgruntlement and wishing for smaller government, even though it is not the presence or excessive size of government that is the real problem there. It is the way this government is organized, and the goals it therefore pursues.
Now, if a German can’t get through with such an appeal or court case, he or she still can opt for the welfare I already described. In fact, he or she can do so instead of appealing an undersized unemployment insurance payout in the first place. That welfare amount isn’t much, but enough to stay alive (heating costs in winter can admittedly be a problem since they can be very high in Germany and don’t get addressed by the current welfare regulation). Unfortunately, the “Job Center,” as the German government institution which controls this type of welfare is called, also has some imperfections. For one thing, it doesn’t respect the notion of asset-building. If you have any money saved (I think, the limit is around $4,000) you must spend it first before you will receive this welfare. This means that a small income earner who has saved all his or her life – to maybe some day start a business or buy a home in some cheap location, maybe to retire there – gets this one and only chance of a lifetime wiped out. All the more reason to resent these heartless bureaucrats and wish for a smaller, less intrusive government; or – if you are smarter than plutocrat propaganda – a better government.
The same goes for being hounded by both, the first and second agency, to try and find a job, regardless of whether jobs for you exist and regardless of if – as an older person – you may be hopelessly out-gunned by younger job seekers. No bureaucrat can make a job magically appear by cracking the whip on an unemployed person, especially an elderly or sick one. The solutions for an ailing job market lie elsewhere, with other things government can do (like a federal job guarantee and universal basic income, for example).
In the U.S., we have similar issues of government getting in its own way of doing the good it has been tasked to do. These issues currently exist or are bound to come up along a future path of improvement. They are not only institutional or structural in origin, although they often are. No, they are also often implied intentionally and justified by our robber billionaires and their millionaire minions with such myths and memes as that of our alleged “welfare queens.” Propagandists tell all those of us, who are currently lucky to have an earned income, that we will be raided through taxes by these “lazy parasites” who somehow live it up at the bottom of society. It’s a perfect distraction from our real parasites: the robber billionaires and their millionaire minions who truly live it up at the top of society, and who do so by raiding our paychecks, by offshoring or automating our jobs without giving us a cut of the ensuing savings, by lowering their own taxes, and by cutting our social security or welfare benefits when our turn comes to cash in on them, say, after having been laid off or having lost our good health.
Basically, the flaws that I see in government aid, which is blocked by uncaring bureaucrats who look for ways of denying welfare or other helpful government services because that’s how they interpret their job, is that too much power is placed in the hands of those bureaucrats, and not enough recourse is given to the people of, by, and for whom the government is supposed to exist. So, here is my suggestion: Let’s fight not over the size of government, but for making government smarter, better, more responsive to our needs, more protective against other great powers, more democratic, and – above all – more caring in outlook and attitude: geared towards helping as much as possible and as universally as possible rather than towards denying help which thereby becomes only theoretical. In making the “general Welfare” its highest priority, government would return to the founders’ intent.
So, to conclude, let’s think of some goals. (If you know of a good forum to discuss and shape them, please mention it in a comment below — otherwise, maybe join the Facebook Group associated with this blog precisely for this purpose.) Let’s think about good government programs which guarantee well-paying jobs, as well as a financial safety net and/or compensation scheme for those who can no longer work, or who may have family members to take care of, or who have other unpaid contributions to make to society or themselves, things that are good for all of us even if they make no financial profit in a market economy. These programs should work equally well for anybody, not requiring that some bureaucrat’s or restrictive law code’s demands are met; not putting us into a place of having to justify our existence — certainly not at a time when jobs are getting scarce and machines produce most of what we need. Things this essential to a person’s survival and dignity should never be deniable by some desk warrior. The key here should be that these safeguards would always be available, not predicated on some bureaucrat’s good will or aptitude. They should be structured without some means test or the like. A universal basic income would be a last safety stop without any ifs or buts. Our most basic rights, whatever they are, must be kept safe from interference by government workers. Government’s task should always be to help, never to interfere. (except in the case of helping the victims against perpetrators)
Let’s think of ways to more fairly distribute the benefits of automation, so that we all benefit, not only a few robber billionaires. Let’s think of ways to do our best to ensure a dignified old age. Let’s also think of ways to get the current Money in Politics out of our politics, as well as of ways to ensure that the kind of accumulated loot in the private sector, which loves to become Money in Politics, isn’t lurking in huge heaps in a few privileged hands, waiting for the next opportunity to bypass whatever anti-corruption barriers we erect, waiting to undermine and co-opt our government and our public discourse from a direction we did n’t foresee. Let’s think about political and activist strategies and discourse on alternative media to make all these things happen (for instance, support this site in its efforts).
Let’s do all these things; but let us also think about ways to make the very soul of government institutions friendlier, and about means for any and all of us to fight for our rights when some bureaucrat denies or violates them: for example, publicly paid ombudsmen or citizen advocates whom any of us can ask for assistance in resolving such an issue of bureaucratic highhandedness. Such posts, and those described two paragraphs earlier, would not only create badly needed jobs but also much improve the role of government in our lives, empowering all of us at the same time. The aim should be not only to take back government from the robber billionaires, and not only to create much needed helpful government programs (such as had truly smashing success back during the New Deal and Great Society), but also to restructure government and our relation to it in such a way that helpful programs don’t get blocked by short-sighted bureaucrats. The organizing principle shouldn’t be wealth or organizational power, as it is now. The organizing principle should be caring. Government should be structured to be first and foremost a caring organization which applies government help on the principle of caring about people, not throwing “the book” at them or cheating them on behalf of a few rich guys. And to ensure this, there must be many ways of seeking strong and quick recourse at the bottom of the power structure.
Our current system of government, and our current attempt at having a democracy, are antiquated. We go through corrupted and rigged electoral motions every few years which – if they were not rigged by the rich – would give us elected representatives who would then blindly grope in the dark regarding our true needs and wishes, and who then would codify their guesses in law and pass them on to bureaucrats who likewise often don’t quite grasp what they are doing. In this day and age of instant electronic communication and big data, we surely can come up with better ways of restoring the age-old mutual caring and shared prosperity which kept humanity alive for so long, but which has been difficult to implement on a large national scale back when messages had to be carried by horse, and electing delegates for some two to four years, and going through intermediate electoral delegations and electoral colleges, was the best our ancestors could accomplish. We can do better today, and the guiding principle should be a caring attitude which maximizes rather than blocks access to the things we all need and together, as a society, can produce.
This set of goals and principles makes for a good agenda in a second American Revolution which takes up the torch our founders left us with. Something to think about as we celebrate our Fourth of July in 2017.