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Blogging First Principles: What's the Proper Role of Government?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

»» Take the 20 Question First Principles Poll on the Proper Roll of Government

Starting March 10, WNYC's Brian Lehrer will be moderating First Principles, a series of three debates on the moral underpinnings of today's politics. The event co-sponsored by Demos, The Ayn Rand Institute and It's A Free Country.

The opening debate will explore the question: "Government: What is Its Proper Role?" We asked our It's a Free Country team to tackle the question first, but we want you to keep the conversation going. Take our 20 question quiz on where you draw the lines, and don't forget to tell us what you think!

And if you're in New York City on March 10, come hear the debate in person at the NYU Skirball Center at 6pm. This event is free and open to the public. RSVP to Demos



Jami Floyd is a legal analyst and former advisor to the Clinton administration on legal and domestic policy issues.

"We ought to consider what is the end of government before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man...."

—John Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776

In philosophy, a first principle is a basic, foundational proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. In American politics, conservatives are attempting to lay claim to the phrase, "First Principles." Most notably, the Heritage Foundation and its "First Principles" initiative seek to return Americans to conservative values by restoring "the principles of America's Founders to their proper role in the public and political discourse, influencing public policy and reforming government to reflect constitutional limits." "Limits" is the operative word, for conservatives like to see a limited role for government. They love to quote Thomas Jefferson, who argued that good government is limited government and that limited government encourages our civic happiness.

But there is no reason why the discussion of our democracy's first principles should be left to conservatives now, any more than it was left to Jeffersonians then.

John Adams, another of our greatest founders, stood firmly on the other side of the debate, arguing for a strong central government. Adams was a conservative Federalist. He was also a great political theorist and historian and largely wrote the Massachusetts Constitution, which is the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect in the world. It forms the basis of the U.S. Constitution, which was drafted on similar principles later in the decade.

Adams and Jefferson—long friends, through the hardest of times and the most trying of circumstances—ultimately split on this issue. Their division continues at the core of the American political psyche.

Thus, the question for today:

Government: What is its proper role? How do you define the role of government and how far it reaches? What should government do, and what should it not do?

Anti-statism and a profound mistrust of power in Washington go all the way back to the Anti-Federalists, who opposed the Constitution because they saw it concentrating too much authority in the central government. At any given time, perhaps 20 to 25 percent of Americans can be counted on to denounce anything Washington does as a threat to "our traditional liberties." The modern Tea Party movement has deep roots in this history.

Which brings us to one of the biggest misconceptions in America today: we did not fight a revolution to stop paying taxes to King George; we fought the revolution to stop paying taxes without representation.

The Revolutionary War was a war about representative government. It was fundamentally about what form our government should and would take. It was never about whether colonists should pay taxes at all. When those colonists dumped all that tea into Boston Harbor, it was because they were tired of paying a tax on tea to a king who would not hear them and to a government in which they were not represented (though the phrase, “No taxation without representation,” was never, in fact, uttered.)

The Boston Tea Party, of course, led directly to the formation of the First Continental Congress and from that to the Revolutionary War.

Fast forward to the 20th Century, in which Democrats dominated the middle decades thanks in part to their vigorous response to the Great Depression. FDR used the government to soften the effects of the Depression and to build the modern safety net. But the great debate continues nevertheless. I’ll wager it always will.

Which gets us back to John Adams. One of his greatest gifts to fledgling nations was his gift as a judge of character.

In 1775, he nominated George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Twenty-five years later, he nominated John Marshall to be Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Marshall is widely regarded as the father of the Constitution.

As for the great American debate, after a long political estrangement, Adams and Jefferson rekindled their friendship. Adams never forsook his Federalist leanings; Jefferson carried his fear of strong central government to the grave. The two men, famously, died on the same day: July 4, 1826.

But they also shared the underlying view that government exists to serve the people, not the other way around. Maybe if we can all find that same common ground, we too can restore civility to an increasingly caustic conversation.


Born in the Soviet Union and raised in Brooklyn, Karol Markowicz is a public relations consultant in NYC and a veteran of Republican campaigns in four states.

"Remember that a government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have."

—Barry Goldwater

I left the Soviet Union at a very young age, so in theory, I am an American, just like all of you lucky enough to be born here. In reality, though, my short life in the Soviet Union inspires everything for me, especially my politics.

The Goldwater quote above isn't just words for my family and me. It's the reality of a world where the government took care of everything for you, and you lost your freedom in that dependence.

School was free, and you were guaranteed a job. My father was a doctor in the Ukraine and my mother was a teacher in Russia. Unfortunately, no one said they were guaranteed that job in their respective homes. They were both sent to Turkmenistan to work. Can you find Turkmenistan on a map? Would you want to give the government the right to send you anywhere they chose for the privilege of having your education be free? I would rather pay.

Health care was also free. Of course, there was little to no medicine, zero innovation, and a short life span. My mother delivered me with no painkillers in a room full of other women in labor. Doctors were in short supply. Why bother becoming a doctor if you were going to make the same amount of money as the street-sweeper? To an American liberal, fairness is everyone making the same amount of money. For those who actually had to live in that kind of system, it was a nightmare. Why work hard when your performance didn't make any difference in your compensation? Why strive for anything when only loyalty to the government produced success?

I sometimes see signs around NYC proclaiming housing as a "right." Sure, it was a right in the Soviet Union. Of course, they could place strangers in your empty rooms. Your whole family might live in one room. Some "right."

I'm not writing about the political situation of strangers, I'm not telling you stories of people far away—this was the life of my family, the life they escaped to come here. Add to their troubles that we are Jewish and their world becomes even more limited.

Russian-Jews in America are disproportionately Republican, and this is no coincidence. They have seen liberalism taken to its natural conclusion. For those who say the Soviet Union didn't practice "pure" Communism, they should know that it was the perfect example of what Communism looks like in practice. Theories don't matter; the reality of liberalism—of a big government providing everything for its citizenry, of a classless society where wealth was forbidden—it's been tried in practice. It failed.

So what is my perfect government? It is one which provides the basics for its citizenry. Adequate defense and border patrol coupled with limited other functions such as currency control, immigration control and a few other tasks. State governments would take control of schools, roads and other functions currently overseen by our bloated federal government. Ideally, local municipalities would have even more responsibility; the more local the government, the better.

I call myself a conservative despite the fact that most of my beliefs could comfortably be described as libertarian. I don't want no government, just limited government. I want more localized government, a removal of regulations that currently tie our federal government in knots, and more accountability at every branch. I live with the idea that to give any government too much power, even one democratically elected by the American people, is a scary proposition. It isn't rhetoric, it's my history. This isn't something that could happen, it's something that did.


Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."

Our government is a tool that we, the people, use to achieve our collective goals. Our society has needs that a single person cannot fulfill on their own. As members of a community, we have hopes we cannot realize through individual action. Our government is a mechanism for pooling resources to overcome the larger challenges we face and to allow us to accomplish more together than we ever could alone.

Our government operates with the common good as its bottom line. We want our country to be prosperous, but we measure our success in more than financial reward. That is why we provide for the security of the weakest members of our society—our elderly, our children and our infirm. It is why we invest in infrastructure that may not show an immediate profit. It is why we consider the impact of our actions not just on our immediate surroundings, but on the health, environment and economy of our larger, integrated society. None of these would necessarily make business sense for a commercial enterprise that needs to put profits first. But they are goals essential to a healthy society.

If our government is to reflect the common interests of its constituents, it needs to hear from those constituents, not only the loudest or wealthiest. While active groups of citizens have often found ways to work together to make their voices heard, we also need a government that promotes engagement, allowing for the softer voices and minority views to join the discussion.

When the common goals of a community can be met through local collaboration, private enterprise or non-profit action, we can ask our government to stand aside. But when we desire an outcome that is not just about profit, when policy has to reflect the needs of those who would otherwise be forgotten, or when we seek to accomplish something more ambitious than any of us can achieve on our own, we need a vehicle to give our actions force greater than the sum of its parts. That’s how we best use our government, and how it best serves us all.


Solomon Kleinsmith is a nonprofit worker, serial social entrepreneur and strident centrist independent blogger from Omaha, Nebraska.

There isn’t a boilerplate answer to defining the role of government from a centrist perspective. But from all of the contacts I’ve had with centrists around the country, I have seen a pattern, an approach that differs from what I’ve seen among most on the right and left. The best way I can think of to explain this is by giving examples.

Unlike the right or left, we don’t necessarily trust the private sector more than the government, or the other way around. We have a healthy distrust of both, and while we believe the government does have an important role to play in some areas—education, for example—we also tend to believe it can go too far other times, like the individual mandate part of the health care reform bill.

We don’t have a set of positions that are what “good centrists” are supposed to believe. Most centrists don’t buy into either ideology, and don’t take stock in ideology in the first place. That being said, we consider the points made from the various corners, but make our minds up using our personal judgement more than any external justification.

Another illustrative example of this is with issues related to labor and business. The right is much more trusting of business, while the left is much more trusting of labor. Most centrists I’ve talked to don’t accept the stereotype that either side presents of their opposing party’s supporters. We can accept that most corporate types are good people, while at the same time realizing that most union members are as well.

This dynamic plays out across nearly the entire spectrum of issues.

We don’t think we need to be the world’s police, but also don’t think the military should be gutted. We think we should do more to help the environment, but not merely by adding a new tax on carbon. We think the government should give more incentives for clean energy, but we also think domestic fossil fuel production should be expanded, both in an effort to be more energy independent.

We don’t see abortion as a good option, but also don’t think the government should be able to take away a woman’s right to choose. We’re fine with more strict gun laws, but not fine with banning the sale of handguns to law-abiding citizens. We do think the government should be smaller in some places, but don’t think the savings from that should be handed over to wealthy people. In fact, we think taxes on the wealthy are too low; we don’t think that money should be used for new spending, but rather paying down the debt.

I can give you dozens of examples, but to break this down into a one-liner is to say that centrists are where the American people are on the issues. With Democratic and Republican ideologies diametrically opposed on most things, you just can’t get to a majority opinion without the center. This doesn’t necessarily make us more right than you, but it certainly doesn’t make us any less so either.


We'll be gathering more perspectives on First Principles from other It's A Free Country contributors. For now, take the survey and tell us what you think!

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Comments [10]


@Kleinsmith:

Let's see:

" . . . we don’t necessarily trust the private sector more than the government, or the other way around. We have a healthy distrust of both . . . "

Except, for example, when it comes to education which you seem to cite as an area where:

" . . . we believe the government does have an important role to play. . . "

For some reason your faux fair and balance act cannot express a role for the "non-governmental" in education.

Nor can you identify a governmental excess in the education area either, so you swing over to the particularly odious "individual mandate" required by the Obamacare scheme to provide a patina of feasibility.

Your avoidance of general principles must make tasks requiring "arithmetic", not to mention "mathematics", unbearably arduous.
(even an abacus might lock you into a unacceptable principle)

Sorry you couldn't read the second half of my post as I think it is a fair attempt to deal with a specific issue that will plague us well into the future, to wit:
" . . . And in the context of more recent controversies - is the electorate coming to realize that as attractive as government promises of "free", "affordable", "lower cost", and "more available" medical services are, they will have their enjoyment of these benefits stolen by the fine print of the undisclosed or misrepresented arrangements entered into among corrupt office holders, unelected bureaucrats, and favor-seeking corporate interests? . . . "

(As to the following: even I admit there may be very special circumstances when this advice might not be controlling)

Mr. Kleinsmith, I would urge that you do have more reason to distrust policies and agents of the government - they usually behave in a peremptory manner that assumes the existence of special immunities and powers not usually available to private, non-governmental actors. That peremptory manner is a natural side effect of the "use-of-physical-force" and other extraordinary powers we grant "the government" to accomplish its tasks. That's the reason that as a first principle it is a sign of a temperate and reasoned citizenry to limit, as much as possible, the authorizations for governmental action.

(? are we all going to see the "Atlas Shrugged" film adaptation when it premieres April 15th ?
http://www.atlasshruggedpart1.com/atlas-shrugged-movie-trailer)

Enjoy the day.

Mar. 06 2011 04:48 AM
Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

"Is the current "dissatisfaction with government" a chimera of the "gabbing class"; a talking point for ideologues; nonexistent for the “average” American citizen except for the striving to marginally improve public institutions?"

I said *issues*, as in issue positions, not general feelings. I think just about everyone is torqued about our government... although some have very different reasons for being disappointed.

Mar. 05 2011 10:33 PM

The Centrist's Dilemma:

" . . . . to break this down into a one-liner is to say that centrists are where the American people are on the issues. . . "

Is the current "dissatisfaction with government" a chimera of the "gabbing class"; a talking point for ideologues; nonexistent for the “average” American citizen except for the striving to marginally improve public institutions?

Or - is this growing "feeling" the reaction of a "mark" coming to the realization that the three-card-monte dealer is only promising a “new deal” to continue his “con”; the understanding that promises of the modern welfare benefited state will not be, and are not intended to be, and cannot be, kept?

And in the context of more recent controversies - is the electorate coming to realize that as attractive as government promises of "free", "affordable", "lower cost", and "more available" medical services are, they will have their enjoyment of these benefits stolen by the fine print of the undisclosed or misrepresented arrangements entered into among corrupt office holders, unelected bureaucrats, and favor-seeking corporate interests?

Or maybe vice versa?

Anyone for a cup of tea?

Mar. 04 2011 06:15 PM
Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

I've heard some centrists say some things you say here... like the yarn some on the right use that liberals are "really" just communists light... I also hear the other way around a lot, that conservatives are libertarians or theocrats light.

One of the more rampant things I've seen among extreme partisans is this idea that there isn't a range of beliefs... but really only two sides to issues. Its obvious rubbish, but that is what this us vs them mentality can do to someone.

But you can be someone with staunch views that doesn't then go off the deep end and think that those who disagree with them are evil, or anyone who doesn't agree with them are all idiots, communists, corporatists or theocrats. I've met plenty of very nice staunch libertarian tea party types, as well as very nice communists, anarchists, etc... that respected people with different ideas (and centrists who are just as judgemental and zealous as wingnuts).

Mar. 02 2011 06:35 PM
Marcello from Brooklyn

I agree with the good habit of looking at issues one by one rather than through ideological lenses.
What I was trying to point out is that, in this particular case, the bloggers' assignment seemed to be: to come up with a "general idea of the role of Government" and therefore it seemed to me to require a wider-scope definition.
But generally I agreed with most of the single issues you pointed out.
On a different note, you know how you often invite your readers to go back and read your posts again?
This time I would like to have your opinion on whether or not what I wrote sound somehow "centrist". Just to get your perspective.

Mar. 02 2011 06:11 PM
Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

"Solomon Kleinsmith’s issue-by-issue approach that seems to lack a unifying and defining principle."

It doesn't SEEM to, it DOES. I wasn't trying to explain an ideological position, because I don't think ideologies are useful. I don't want to look at the world through some lens of prepackaged issue positions... and just like most people, who don't buy into (or don't fully buy into) either major ideology, much less the more fringe ideologies, I can look at each issue on its own... and miraculously most people still come to similar conclusions.

Mar. 02 2011 02:39 PM
Marcello from Brooklyn

A very interesting conversation. Of the 4 bloggers who intervened, only Justin Krebs seemed able to distillate a general definition of the role of government but maybe my perception of it is influenced by the fact that his was also the one closest to my personal belief: that while Government is a “super-individual dimension” it is still a dimension of ourselves. Therefore, every attempt (up to a certain extent…) at diminishing or vilifying the role of Government in modern society, equates to an act of self-abdication on our part.
But again, aside from my personal opinions, I liked what Justin Krebs had to say, also because he seems to have, better than the others, come up with a general definition that goes beyond the more limited scope of historical background (Jami Floyd), biographical (Karol Marcowicz) or Solomon Kleinsmith’s issue-by-issue approach that seems to lack a unifying and defining principle.
I enjoyed Karol Marcowicz’s personal touch on how she came to embrace her conservative views although, even before reading about it, I could already have predicted a lot about her personal history. Having grown up in the USSR, Marcowicz understandably shows a very “scarred” and partial opinion of Government because she has experienced one of its extreme incarnations (that’s why most Russians share the same views…). But, as many people in her position, she now finds herself having leaped from one extreme to the opposite; from one excess to another.
She reminds me of those alcoholics who almost drink themselves to death and than, after sobering up, do not touch any alcohol for the rest of their life. Or, even better, one of those people who have lived a life of debauchery and then, from one day to another, become “Born Again Christians” and embrace religious fundamentalism (I am using these only as examples of extreme behavior, without any personal reference of course…).
This position, so common in America, has always seemed to me reactive, unbalanced and, consciously or not, deeply hypocritical
Marcowicz is right to emphasize the horrors of life under Communism and she is also right to say that what she experienced was not some “imperfect realization of Communism” meaning that things somehow, would have been better if only its “real” principals would have been applied correctly. Communism failed historically and that’ it! And it happened because it was based on an abstract egalitarian principle that didn’t consider a fundamental aspect of human nature: that people need individual incentives and gratification to succeed and that a collectivistic society that pretends to guarantee the same rewards to everyone, regardless of merit, talent and effort is bound to fail.
With all its problems, Capitalism is still the best option we have because it is based on a different but not less basic human inclination: self-interest.
For this very reason though, it cannot be left completely unbridled and that is where Government plays a crucial role.

Mar. 02 2011 02:12 PM
Marcello from Brooklyn

The classic mistake Marcowicz and all “naïve” American Conservatives make (I mean this as a compliment…) is to consider Communism as the “natural conclusion of liberalism”. What she does not see is that, in addition to being a failed socio-political model, Communism was also something else, even more basic: the ever-recurring effort of the well-off, privileged minority (in this case party officials and bureaucrats…) to preserve their power and privileges by harming the interests of the vast majority. This tendency doesn’t have anything to do with Communism, Statism or any other political label. It has existed everywhere at any point in History and under any political system.
Social life is a bit like a sporting event where you have competing forces trying to exercise their self-interest. The difference is that, unlike sports, in real life you don’t have a leveled playing field (where all the teams have the same number of players, comparable skills or have the same weight…) nor we should expect one.
But that is exactly why the role of Government is crucial and those who try to diminish it (like American non-naïve conservatives…) are like those mafia characters who try to rig boxing matches: they know that “their” fighters are the biggest, the richest and the most powerful and therefore they know that by removing the “referee” (in the name of freedom from rules…) they can pretty much assure the outcome they desire.
When I first moved to the States, I was told, with a baking example, that Democrats want to make sure that “the cake of national wealth” is somehow evenly distributed while Republicans claim that the whole idea of “slicing and dividing” is wrong because, in reality, everyone can be a “baker” and make their own cake.
While this is true to a certain extent (and it is a tendency that we should encourage) it is also true that, exactly because we are not all the same, we cannot expect that everyone will become a “successful baker” regardless of the political system, place or time. Along with the “winners” there are always going to be “losers” and to pretend that is otherwise is just as abstract as the Communist idea of harmonious equality.
The role of Government is to take care of everybody (without citizens abusing Govt.) just like, after the elections, the President of the United States is the president of all Americans not only those who voted for him.
To assure that everyone can be a “potentially successful baker” in the future as a pretext to deny in the present the means of social emancipation (such as affordable college tuition or health care) is just as disingenuous and abstract as the empty claims of all the Stalins, Mubaraks and Qaddafis of History.

Mar. 02 2011 02:09 PM
Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

"I think a lot of assumptions are made by centrists, like Solomon did in his piece, for them to be able to straddle both sides in this way."

Funny how you say we're making an assumption, while making an assumption. Centrists don't straddle anything. We just look at the same issues you do and see them differently. I know no centrists who are such because they purposefully take what they think a centrist path is supposed to be. Thats just not how we work.

"I am not more "trusting" of business than I am of unions, I'm anti-union because they go against my basic sense of fairness and remind me of the mafia with their pay-for-protection-or-you-can't-work racket. It's not a love of business, it's a love of freedom that I have."

I am not so full of myself that I pretend people who disagree with me don't love freedom as much as I do. I guarontee you you don't any more than I do, or even as much as liberals do, we just believe that different things spring from that love of freedom.

To be free, people must be free to organize, lobby and bargain collectively. Just like businesses abuse their rights sometimes, so do unions. This is no justification for taking those rights away.

"Similarly, I imagine someone pro-choice would be offended by the characterization of that position as seeing abortion as a "good option"."

Was there a point in you saying this? I certainly didn't say that.

"I don't want to be the world's police, and most reasonable liberals don't want to gut our military (the fact that they don't want to ever use that military is another story entirely)."

Conservatives do tend to want to play world police, and liberals do tend to want to drastically cut the military. I'm not talking about YOU, or any specific people.

"Is there a guiding centrist philosophy that I'm missing? Are centrists for smaller government or bigger government? And do centrists *always* fall right in the middle on issues?"

I answered these questions very clearly in my post... are you purposefully being dense to start a fight or something? I'm confused.

I specifically said in my post that there isn't a centrist ideology, but a "centrist approach".

Centrists are for smaller government in SOME places.

If someone doesn't fall into the middle range, then how could you call them a centrist? haha That is what centrist means... in the center...

Just like the left and right used to have... the center is a big tent, with a center of gravity that leans conservative on fiscal issues (not as far as the right), and leans right on social issues (not as far as the left).

Just like the left and right aren't points on the spectrum, but rather a range (that has been getting smaller in the last few years as both parties become more ideologically pure and push out centrists and moderates), the center is a range as well.

Mar. 02 2011 11:44 AM
Karol from NYC

While I am obviously on the opposite side from liberalism, it's centrism that I find most difficult to understand. I think a lot of assumptions are made by centrists, like Solomon did in his piece, for them to be able to straddle both sides in this way. I am not more "trusting" of business than I am of unions, I'm anti-union because they go against my basic sense of fairness and remind me of the mafia with their pay-for-protection-or-you-can't-work racket. It's not a love of business, it's a love of freedom that I have. Similarly, I imagine someone pro-choice would be offended by the characterization of that position as seeing abortion as a "good option". I don't want to be the world's police, and most reasonable liberals don't want to gut our military (the fact that they don't want to ever use that military is another story entirely). Is there a guiding centrist philosophy that I'm missing? Are centrists for smaller government or bigger government? And do centrists *always* fall right in the middle on issues? It's all perplexing. Would love for Solomon to respond!

Mar. 01 2011 11:36 AM

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