Sunday, November 1, 2009

The government's role is to protect us...

(Click here to see the video)

"The government's role is to protect "us"..."
Reverend Al Sharpton, on "This Week" news show, Nov 1, 2009

As I usually do on Sunday mornings, today I watched the key Sunday morning weekly news shows like "Face the Nation" and "This Week". I find this exercise helps me keep track of the political pulse in the USA in the shortest amount of time and with greatest impact. The panel discussions on "This Week" are usually most intriguing to me as a microcosm of debate between liberal, centrist, and conservative "talking heads" as they battle out their positions in short debate form. It is one of the few programs which feature simultaneously the likes of George Will and the "Reverend" Al Sharpton in discussion of the key issues of the week. This week the key discussions were on the upcoming local and state level elections, defining the major battles and issues...and of course a lot is made of the weeks latest polls on everything from health-care to the popularity of President Obama.

The core debate currently in the political arena at a macro level is defining the role of government in a democracy. Towards the end of the program "This Week", I felt Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Will summarized the core philosophical difference between liberal and conservative political views succinctly when Al Sharpton said vehemently that "the role of government is to protect us" to which George Will replied "I thought the role of government was to protect OUR RIGHTS...even from government itself". This struck me as the heart of the matter for so MANY issues our country is facing right now.

While the Democrats and President Obama continue to have the power and influence from the last election cycle to have their way for now, there is obviously a strong back lash against many of the big government plans and controls the administration and congress together are pushing forward. As someone else on the program said, "with this health-care bill, the Democrats are pushing the shopping cart down the aisle as fast as they can and filling it with as much control and power items that they can get passed in short order".

In reaction to this, the Republican party leadership is pushing the party further to the extreme "right", and it seems we are seeing a number of people leave both parties to pursue more INDEPENDENT or centrist pursuits. Unfortunately, panel members from each party persuasion castigate "independents" as being "Perot extremists" if independents all line up behind the ideologies of this independent figurehead of over 20 years ago who hasn't been heard from in the political arena in a long time. They seem to be afraid to bring up current independent thinkers like Congressman Ron Paul or Mayor Bloomberg of New York City. Joe Lieberman is the other "poster child" of independent politicians and he was interviewed briefly on "Face the Nation" today...but the media gives very short shift to the independent movement and loves to continue the battle between two parties that in my view both represent "big government" programs even if from different applications thereof.

While I find it somewhat nauseating to have people like Al Sharpton (I would personally never call him "Reverend" and I don't know why the media continues to do so since he is now more a full time political pundit than a "reverend") be the best they can find to represent the mainstream liberal Democratic cause (what happened to Donna Brazile who is a much smoother, more intelligent representative of the liberal democrat agenda?). Yet, the scary part is that Al Sharpton probably better represents the mindset and attitude of that sector's voting public. Simplistic, fear-mongering, banner waving hype on "equal rights" and the poor masses that need big government protection has over run more intelligent, objective and rational debates. Where are the intelligent, better educated leaders that used to lead that democratic charge? Why can't we see more debates and interviews by intelligent minority leaders like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, or even Jesse Jackson Jr. who would arguably be a better image and mouthpiece for minority and liberal causes than Sharpton.

But, more important then personality or image issues, it is the content of thought and reason that worries me and I think many more like me. Since when did the constitution change so much as to make the government guarantors of so many social benefits? When did the constitution change to allow for so much taxation without representation? When did the switch happen from the purpose of protecting individual rights and our borders to government's current mandate of controlling markets, currencies, health-care, unemployment benefits, arts endowments, foreign nation building, and the right to go to war without Congress declaring war?

If government's role is first and foremost to protect "us" versus protecting our rights and freedoms, then I am afraid our democracy is doomed to the realities of favorite quote on democracy from the late 1700s...

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess of the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's great civilizations has been 200 years.

These nations have progressed through this sequence:from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance;from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency;from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again to bondage.
--Sir Alex Fraser Tytler (1742-1813) Scottish jurist and historian

A couple bonus quotes on this theme...

Democracy does not guarantee equality of conditions - it only guarantees equality of opportunity.
Irving Kristol

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” -- Thomas Jefferson


Timothy said...

Hey Ed,

You bring up alot of interesting issues. As you said, what is the role of Government in our Democracy? For the US, the role of Government was first outlined in the constitution, which was during a historical time period with a radically different context than our own (as brilliant and often-times relevant as it is). You're right that it does not outline many of these social services that the Government now provides, these safety nets were first ushered in during the early 1900s.

It's interesting though that the philosophical underpinning of many of these ideas, like public health care, unemployment insurance, social security, and the general provision of public goods by the Government is not based around ethics, minority rights, or a socialistic sense of equality. It came out of an idea that developed along with macroeconomic theory and free market capitalism that the Government should be responsible for "smoothing the business cycle." The cycle of recessions/booms were becoming inevitable and common, so a bunch of economists and politicians (alot of whom loved free markets) came up with the idea of automatic stabilisers.

In a recession many people lose their jobs, it's just a fact of the capitalist system. If they lack an income stream before they find a new job, then many will enter poverty (assuming they are unemployed for more than a couple of months), and the recession will actually last alot longer than it would have if the Government gave them support. The economy would also be able to grow at a faster rate when the recovery occurs. If many workers are dying due to lack of proper health care, a similar effect will take place where the labour force is shrinking more than it needs to, which hampers economic growth and efficiency (more people take time off from work due to illness).

The idea of social security probably has less economic reasoning behind it, but it is purely self-interested, since we are all going to be old one day. Anyway, I just thought it would be useful to add how many economists (who are obsessed with economic theory and not which party is better, or stupid ideological wars) came to embrace these ideas, as did the social activists.

Also missing from the debate is the reality of corporate power. People usually create a distinction between "Government power" and "people power" and express reality as a constant struggle between the two. This might be applicable in totalitarian states, but in capitalist states it misses a huge variable from the equation. Corporations, in reality, have most of the power in an economy, since they provide most of the people with an income stream, and regulate their activities and behaviour for 8+ hours a day. Corporations en masse can create huge problems for general populations, the most recent example being the global financial crises. As soon as Government power recedes, corporate power will fill in the vacuum unless a given society creates its own economic power through some kind of communitarian/socialist structure.

Anyway, just some ideas. Regarding your observations concerning political pundits on TV, I couldn't agree more. I've probably seen more american political shows than alot of Americans have (which is pretty sad, since I live in Australia), and the quality of commentators is usually dismal. I'm not sure if the intelligent people don't want to go on shows like these, or the stations view them as less entertaining, or there just aren't that many intelligent political commentators around, but whatever the reason it's terrible.

edward said...

Hi Tim,
Always great to receive your well thought out comments and positions.

Much of your perspective I agree with as to reasons and historical treatment of the subject. When I studied economics back in college, I found it to be one of the most unexacting sciences I studied (besides maybe philosophy :)) and I continue to find difficulty sorting through myriad "economists" trying to explain or justify what is happening in these contemporary markets or trying to predict what will happen next. One of the few tried and proven in my sphere of coverage is Nouri Roubini whose blog you will find linked to from this one.

I agree with you that many are missing the point regarding corporate power and influence in and over governments. Its not hard to believe some of the "conspiracy theories" regarding government and corporate policies often going hand in hand...ala Halberton's role in rebuilding infrastructure in Iraq that their own government took out. With a VP of our country being a former officer of that company, it is a huge ethical breach in my opinion.

The main problem with global corporate power is the loss of free and fair trade in most global systems that have no commercial laws providing protection against monopolies and corruption. My experiences in Latin America prove to me this point that large global companies have much greater protection than entrepreneurs or small business, especially in emerging markets with little oversight.

While I understand the "reasons" why the USA and much of the first world went to some socialistic models in the last century during times of crisis and world wars...the problem is that every time governments have instilled "temporary emergency measures" to provide stability during crisis...they never return back to their originally intended role and return power to the people and to markets. You give them an inch..they always take a mile. I view the USA's "Homeland Security" and "patriot act" as examples of my government using crisis to gain more power and control of its citizens. I hope in time the electorate demands a return of their privacy and "innocence until proven guilty" in their legal system. Right now the pendulum is way the other direction.

I also have been following and applaud your country's series of "intelligence squared" debates on so many of these important global issues (see ). This forum is much more "intelligent" and substantive than anything I am seeing of the media or forums in my own country.

One final response...I still trust free markets and fundamentals of capitalism to keep balance on economics more than I do governments. Governments role from a constitutional and rational viewpoint should be to only guarantee a level playing field for domestic market competition...along with the fundamental protection of borders. When it begins interfering with the natural order and mathematics of things or limits its citizens of doing international my opinion it oversteps its intended purpose. Democracy only retains its power and endurance when it protects ALL of its constituent's rights...not just providing the best justice money can buy or that the majority may demand without cause.

Timothy said...

Hey Ed,

You're right on the ball when it comes to the field of economics, it probably shouldn't even be called a science. Nevertheless, it's all we have, and no matter how imperfect the tools we have to use them. Even the most scientific expression of economics, econometrics, was found to be based on suspicious foundations (i.e. the Lucas critique, that the relationship between different economic variables can fundamentally change over time, so predicting outcomes based on historical values is inaccurate at best).

You're also right that there are just as many conspiracy theories about corporations as there are about Governments. I think they're rooted in the fact that most people perceive social goods/evils the same way they do personal good/evil, that is that they come from people's good intentions or ill wills. I.e. Bush organised 9/11, Obama is a terrorist trying to undermine the motherland, CEOs are actively out to destroy everything good in society.

Instead, I think the problems are more structural and incentives-based. The way that corporations are structured, that their sole goal is to maximise short-run profits, and their failure to internalise social externalities like inhumane treatment or pollution or whatever often lead to very dysfunctional outcomes. Management and CEOs are picked by shareholders for their ability to rake in money, and their pay packets are often determined solely by that ability also. In a way these people are given an incentive to be as greedy and ruthless as possible.

I'm not sure what you mean by socialistic policies, do you mean like unemployment insurance? Something like that is designed to be implemented permanently. In boom times not as many would need it as in recessions, so it complements the way that the economy fluctuates. That's why they called it an automatic stabiliser.

But yeah, the encroachment of civil liberties during the war on terror is something bemoaned by people all over the political spectrum (I wouldn't call the patriot act anything close to socialistic). Politicians using "crises" to expand power is something you see really often. The state government in Australia where I live (new south wales) recently gave the police extraordinary powers to combat bikie gangs. Hopefully public pressure in both of our countries will mount to overturn these laws, but given the quality of the political debate as presented by the media, it's doubtful.

Australia actually has quite a few intelligent panel and Q&A like discussions on politics on a couple of our channels. They aren't mainstream though. The mainstream media here is almost as sensationalist and hysterical as Americas'.

Anyhow, the role of Government will be something we will never agree on, but it's always fun to talk about it. I think something every intelligent political observer can agree on is the importance of integrity in politicians, which is desperately lacking on both sides. I must say I respect a man like Ron Paul significantly more than any democratic senator who bases their decisions on lobby money, even if Ron Paul adopts the exact opposite position to me economically.

edward said...

Very well stated Tim. And I could probably live with your version of socialism:). Unfortunately, most systems of whatever form of government go to extremes and lose their balance. I believe in a kinder, gentler version of capitalism that also demonstrates social responsibility. I also think that IS the role of reel in the extremes and excessive greed of corporate mentality where profit is everything. You can be socially responsible without making it your mantra or throwing away all your profits. You and I are not that far apart. Sometimes labels represent more than is intended in the use of them.

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