What Is The Proper Role of Government?

This will be the first edition of point/counterpoint where one side of the political spectrum will debate with someone from the other side.  In this first edition, Geoff Willis presents the “Point”  while Deborah Rosenthal presents the “Counterpoint.”

POINT – The Constitution Protects The Power Of The People FROM the Government, It Does Not Create Power For The Government Over The People

By: Geoffrey Willis

Prior to the adoption of the United States Constitution and the concepts of freedom it established in clear and brilliantly composed language, the purpose of all government had been to create order and control the citizenry. What our founding fathers accomplished was a true and historic break from the past. Instead of government limiting the power of the people, in the American experiment the government’s power was limited for the benefit of the people. This concept was startling and completely new 225 years ago and is unfortunately on the cusp of being lost today where the current administration seeks to dramatically increase the size and power of government at the cost of personal freedom. Freedom is after all, the single most defining concept in American history and a concept that Americans have always been willing to fight and die for.

In a society where personal freedom is of paramount importance and where the government is to have limited power and size, what is the proper role of government? Of the wide range of tasks our government undertakes today only a few are really proper exercises of authority. First, the government has the duty to provide for national defense. Second, the government needs to protect the public’s health. Finally, the government has the duty to provide the public with safety. That’s it – just those three crucial things.

Providing for national defense should be self-evident. Individuals cannot protect the collective from attacks from other countries. When the first band of humans invaded another band of humans the need for national security was clear. Most of the debate on this governmental duty revolves around how much and how big the national defense structure needs to be, but that is a discussion for another day.

Providing for the public health has nothing to do with which doctor you can go to or whether insurance has a single pay option. The “public health” means basic sanitation and a clean environment in which to live. Sewers, trash, and clean water all must be provided for the common good and the common benefit. Again, the debate here can be over how far the tent of public health stretches (environmental regulations?) but there is very little debate over whether providing these services is an appropriate role for government.

Finally, the government needs to provide safety for the public. The Wild West showed that life without law enforcement didn’t really work very well, nor did life with no organized fire protection. Building safety is another valued and appropriate government function.

That is it. Nothing more must be provided by the government, in fact even these three categories of service should always be implemented with a single question in mind, “is the government unjustly limiting the power of the people?”

Obviously there are quite a few services currently provided missing from this list. Keep in mind, you are promised the right of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” People talk about “entitlements” but that is a terrible misnomer. There is no right retirement payments, no right to unemployment payments, no right to medical care, no right to a free education and no right to payment for not working. NO ONE is “entitled” to ANY of these things.

However, because America really is a kind and gentle country we have voluntarily decided to give up a little of our personal freedom to provide for those in need. While I personally think that the amazing philanthropic spirit that is really unique to America (http://www.barclayswealth.com/Images/Global-Giving-the-Culture-of-Philanthropy.pdf) can effectively handle virtually all of these needs and can do it more cost effectively than government, I have no problem with small government programs of last resort that can act as a safety net for those whose needs are not adequately met by private help. I also think free and open public education is also universally valuable and one of the first things that should be supported for the common good.

Unfortunately, it seems like the United States has become a place where people feel that they are “owed” by the government and have a “right” to these things that they are owed. Today in America things have gotten so far out of control that a majority of Americans take more out of the government than they put into it. In other words, more than 50% of Americans receive more benefit from the government than they pay in ANY form of taxes or payments TO the government. (U.S. News) The top 1% of wage earners, currently vilified by President Obama as “needing to pay their share” currently pay 37% of all federal income taxes. (Tax basics) As one former President famously said

“It is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the tax rates…. [A]n economy constrained by high tax rates will never produce enough revenue to balance the budget, just as it will never create enough jobs or enough profits.”

Which conservative President made that remark? John F. Kennedy in 1963. (You’ll Never Guess)

Even more fundamental to currently faltering economy than the way that the tax burden is allocated is the insane way in which the United States currently does its budget. I have five teenagers and one of the first economic lessons I teach them is how to make a budget. A key concept that they easily grasp is that you cannot spend more money than you bring in. Oh, if only our government would grasp that concept so easily.

Historically the United State had only gone into deficit spending to cover the costs of wars. Following each war the U.S. would pay off its debt and continue along debt free until the next war came along. That all ended with the great depression when FDR and his new deal dramatically expanded the course and scope of government. FDR’s rapid expansion of government and government spending may well have extended the great depression (Thinking Right), but the expansion of deficit spending undertaken by FDR is a mere drop in the bucket when compared to the increase in the federal budget deficit that has occurred under President Obama. The United States has incurred nearly a third of its TOTAL DEBT over the past 236 years during the Obama Presidency. (Adelphi)

One of the key problems is that there is NO evaluation of financial priorities undertaken against the backdrop of projected national income. Do we want to spend taxpayer money protecting fairy shrimp (we spend lots of federal money doing this) or providing nutritional guidance to teenage moms? You can argue over which is more deserving and how we should allocate our limited and finite tax money – the problem is we simply don’t have this discussion at all and instead want to spend money on everything causing us to spend more than taxes bring in.

What do we need to do to return to a country where the government’s powers are limited to protect the people instead of a country where the government limits the power of the individual? First, we need to remember our constitutional roots. Government should be limited to its primary functions. Second, we need to return to simple accounting fundamentals and actually spend no more than we take in – in fact for a while we may actually have to pay off the national credit card and spend less than we take in. Third, we need to have a rational tax allocation process where everyone pays their fair share and pulls their own weight. Finally, we need to figure out how to talk to one another. One of the real problems in the U.S. today is that the sources of information are so quickly disseminated that many of the checks and balances on truth and honesty are under attack and the simple concept of civility is viewed as a luxury instead of as a cornerstone to decent human behavior.

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Counterpoint – The Constitution Is An Ever Evolving Document

By: Deborah Rosenthal

When a conservative libertarian like Mr. Willis starts appealing to our constitutional roots, grab your history books and prepare for a bumpy ride.  First, he tends to get his historical facts wrong, or at least out of context. President Kennedy, for instance, was speaking about lowering the top marginal tax rate from over 90% to a measly 87%, compared to 35% today. The powers of the federal government were derived from the people and, in the Bill of Rights, they were limited for the benefit of the individual. Private philanthropy has never taken up the slack conservatives want to give it; poor houses and Potters fields were features of our earliest communities.

Mr. Willis also indulges in some impressive rhetorical sleight of hand. He starts by stating that American democracy was intended to protect personal freedom, and then slides effortlessly to assert that our current federal government is exceeding its proper, i.e. constitutional, exercise of authority.  When he speaks of voluntarily giving up a little personal freedom to provide for those in need, it is clear that he is not referring to personal rights, he is referring to tax dollars, his tax dollars.  Personal freedom and tax rates may be related, but low taxes are not the purpose of democracy.

 When describing a constitutional democracy, words make a difference.  Mr. Willis’ acknowledgment of a government obligation to protect public health is actually based on a revealing misquote.  The Constitution begins by stating, unequivocally, that its purpose is “to 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 ..”  Public health is certainly part of the general welfare, but doesn’t begin to define the full scope of this remarkably elastic phrase. Far from locking us into the eighteenth century, the true genius of the Constitution is that it gave our country the freedom to grow and change without abandoning our shared principles.

 The conservative appeal to constitutional roots suffers from the same factual defects as its appeal to history.  Even without the regular political  revolutions recommended by Thomas Jefferson, American democracy has reinvented itself regularly.  Congress was always empowered to regulate commerce, and by the 1830s it took the banking system national. In the 1860s, civil rights became a national concern. Between the 1870s and 1920s, we established the federal courts as the supreme arbiters of personal and corporate rights, and legally extended the ballot to women and racial minorities. In the 1930s, the federal government offered a helping hand to the deserving poor and, by the 1960s, we included medical care for the elderly in our national safety net.  We may have argued about the propriety of these actions ever since, but there is no question they all fall within the definition of “general welfare.”

As we have reinvented ourselves to meet new challenges, the question is no longer what “is” the proper role of government, but what do we want our government to be?  Judging by the last 50 years, the answer seems clear. We do not want the severely limited, even cramped, federal government postulated by libertarians or conservatives. We want a federal government that protects us from external, domestic, or even personal, harm. We want a federal government that does the things that are too big for any individual state, and we want a bench of national standards instead of a patchwork of state regulation. The federal government expanded its reach in the 1930s and 1960s, not for nefarious reasons, but because we wanted a federal government that provided for the well-being of its most vulnerable citizens and helped all of us as we moved toward an uncertain old age. 

 The fact that Mr. Willis misstates history does mean that he is always wrong. I am not a disciple of Samuelson economics, who ignores deficit spending as irrelevant to our national well-being.  Like most of us, I believe in paying our bills, unless there are important, unusual reasons to go into debt.  Social Security and Medicare don’t qualify as extraordinary cases and we need to have a federal budget that accommodates these programs, as well as others. I agree with Mr. Willis that we should adopt a realistic budget that covers our financial obligations and, hopefully, leaves a little left over for the inevitable rainy day. That’s what I do at home, and I expect no less of my country’s financial managers. 

 What, Mr. Willis asks, do we do? He asks for national discussion about priorities, the role of government, and our national financial capacity, but he presupposes its result.  He assumes we will choose a federal government that withdraws to a vision of limited federal government that never existed, even for the founding fathers, and withdraws the much vaunted safety net of the 1930’s and 1960’s from all but the most demonstrably deserving poor.  He assumes that Social Security and Medicare are nothing but voluntary charity in wolves’ clothing. I do not confuse liberty with tax rates, nor do I assume that public dollars can never be spent for the good of many individuals.

 Before we can talk productively, we need to stop the blame game that seems to consume political discourse today .  I am no more eager to give up my home mortgage deduction than retirees are willing to see cuts in Social Security.  Why should the jobless be blamed for wanting extended unemployment benefits when they see hedge fund managers with multi-million dollar bonuses and failed bank executives with golden parachutes?  Why should the working poor see their children go without health care, and then hear themselves criticized for earning too little to pay federal taxes?  Why should the elderly forego unneeded Medicare or Social Security payments, if they think the money will be wasted on the shiftless?  Instead of pointing fingers at each other, 99% versus 1% or 47% versus 53%, we need to recognize that progress is based on mutual respect and shared goals, never on blame.  Sacrifices need to be shared across the body politic, or they just feel punitive.

 So, in addition to recognizing that we all suffer from myopia when our own interests are at stake, we need some national consensus about what is a reasonable level for federal taxes, recognizing that we have widely varying amounts of disposable income and different state, local and family demands. Is it fair to pay 20%  of gross income for federal services? 30%?  70% ? 95%?  The only agreement seems to be that “we” pay too much and “they” pay too little.  This badly needs to change if we are to heal our national divisions.  We need to recognize that the federal government provides value for our taxes, even if occasionally, or even frequently, it seems as inefficient as an out-of-date battleship.

 Then, and Mr. Willis is again right about this, we need to have a real national discussion about priorities.  We need to stop paying for dubious foreign military adventures off the balance sheet, as though we aren’t spending real money if it isn’t in the budget.  In common parlance, we need to stop pretending we can have both guns and butter, without paying for either.  We need to take on medical care and costs as questions of national self-interest, not because medical care is a constitutional right, but because our current system is wasteful of both lives and money.  A free public education may not be listed in the Constitution, but it was one of the defining institutions of early America, and the only way to ensure a united, literate and employable citizenry. There may need to be painful choices between prisons and schools, roads and arts, impoverished children and needy retirees, but we must recognize them as choices that define our 21st century definition of the general welfare, not a return to some mythical dream of limited government.

 So, where does that leave us?  Mr. Willis and I agree about the genius of American democracy.  We agree about the need for rational civil discourse, and the benefits of adopting a realistic budget and paying our national bills.  We disagree about the proper role of the federal government in promoting the general welfare, though I suspect a lot of our disagreement is more theoretical than practical.  We may disagree about reasonable tax levels, though I’m not sure, because most discussion never gets beyond “too much-too little” or “come back when there’s no more waste and inefficiency.” Most importantly, though, and the reason I have some hope, is that we both agree that all Americans need to work together and pay their fair share for the common good.

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