To Take or to Give?

12 Jul

George Will’s column today uses the issue of campaign finance reform to strike again at the heart of the division in American politics. This division is an original sin, a fundamental flaw in the Matrix, ensconced at the beginning, and made to play out for the last 230 odd years. The question: does government provide freedoms, or take them?

The current political debate on the size and role of government is merely a smoke screen for this more basic question. Will frequently comments on campaign finance reform because he sees it as a fundamental abridgement of the First Amendment. In this recent article, he even takes the NRA to task for seeking to protect the Second by compromising (for their benefit) on the First. At the heart of his critique is the idea that free speech can never be protected by giving greater control to the government (i.e. publicly funded elections).

Which gets to the heart of the basic liberal/conservative question. Leaving aside any hypocrisy in the current iteration of Congress or the two political parties, the question is whether an individual’s freedoms are protected by the government, or from it. (Author’s Note: In this piece, I will use the term “Freedoms” instead “Rights” to avoid any messy discussions of the difference between the two mucking up the main point.) I am not asking whether such freedoms are inherent, or provided by the Creator. Simply, does government provide the freedoms we hold dear, or do we need to worry that government is lurking to take these already present freedoms away.

The Fourth of July just having passed, one is reminded of the imperative of the Declaration of Independence in the first place. As watchers of HBO’s “John Adams” know, in our education-by-television-event culture, America declared independence from England not to secure greater government protections, but to shield itself from governmental excess. Government took freedom away: freedom to assemble, freedom to speak, freedom to privacy within one’s home. The Declaration of Independence, and later, the Constitution, were meant to protect society from the government by dividing it, weakening it, and allowing the people the means to overthrow it (guns).

Between then and now, ideas about society and government changed. While the two may not quite yet be synonymous, they are growing closer. Government is seen as a tool to implement a collective will of society; a trusted agent of change. As society develops, government is recruited to mandate specific behaviors, or promote the collective welfare, as defined by that society. Government is not separate from the people; it is the personified will of the people. To quote the latest prophet of this idea, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

At the heart of this idea is the concept that society must be protected from the individual, not the individual protected from government. Liberals, at their core, believe in the inherent goodness and progressiveness of the collective, but do not trust the will of the individual. Therefore government protects the greater society from the individual evil. Conservatives, on the other hand, trust the individual to make a coherent free choice. They do not trust the conglomerate of those choices (the greater society), nor the tool of the society (government).

Each side has ample evidence for its case. Individuals commit acts of racism, sexism, murder, lynchings, pollution and greed. Therefore, Liberals seek to use government to end such practices, with Voting Rights Acts, gun law restrictions, and greater regulations on oil drilling and investment speculation. On the other hand, the government is constantly taking from the individual: zoning laws restrict how I build my home, taxes take my income,  and the state won’t let me buy guns. I am not trusted to make many personal decisions for myself, including (and recently added), whether I buy a certain product from a private company (health insurance). The government is as onerous now as it was when British soldiers were boarded at my home and I could not speak my mind in the town square.

In sum, Liberals are Optimistic about society and government but Pessimistic about the individual. Conservatives are Optimistic about the individual, but Pessimistic about government and the society at large. I am Pessimistic about all three, which lands me in the middle of largest, and hereto now, unmentioned, portion of the American electorate: the Pragmatic Independent. As society grows more complicated, and people fear for their role in it, expect the Liberal cause to dominate. But look for Conservatives to rise again, if they are able to leave the political woodshed and wilderness behind and make this coherent argument: in an increasingly complicated world, put your trust in yourself, not inept and antiquated systems. You are the One you have been waiting for.

14 Responses to “To Take or to Give?”

  1. Ethan July 13, 2010 at 12:06 am #

    Some prefer not to view the essential dichotomy as being about Government’s role vis-a-vis “freedom.”  Not everyone values it so mightily, you know.  Some, in fact, see it as largely an illusion.  And, even if “freedom” is your Big Thing, It is fairly clear that governments both create and deny freedoms.  The question is better considered as: when is it moral/ethical/right to limit individual freedom for the sake of collective freedom?

    To me, the essential (in the truest sense) question would be better put thus: Can a government increase the general happiness of it’s citizens?  Freedom is but one component of happiness.

    • Brian Castner July 13, 2010 at 11:09 am #

      I wish the question were so nuanced. But in today’s climate, I’m pretty sure its a binary question, not a mix of the two.

      BTW, have you seen the news out of Bhutan. The enlightened King is promoting his country’s GHP – Gross Happiness Product – instead of GDP or other economic measures.

      • Ethan July 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm #

        I know, he’s a badass.  A happy badass.

  2. Mike In WNY July 13, 2010 at 3:05 am #

    And some of us believe that limiting individual freedom in favor of collective freedom is an oxymoron. In other words, the best results for the collective are created by allowing all voluntary associations that do no infringe upon others.

    • Ethan July 13, 2010 at 7:06 am #

      yawn.  Anyway…

    • STEEL July 13, 2010 at 9:58 am #

      Uh oh you just identified a problem – who decides what is abridging upon another? You guys never want to answer that.

      • Mike In WNY July 14, 2010 at 12:54 am #

        That has been answered myriad times. You just don’t listen. If someone takes something that isn’t theirs, it is an infringement. If someone harms another person physically, that is an infringement. If someone forces you to purchase something against your will, that is an infringement, essentially equal to taking.

    • STEEL July 13, 2010 at 10:16 am #

      The simplistic idea that its either ALL government to the rescue or that Government is ALL bad is the stupidity of the argument today. Both sides have an ability to swing the argument too far to the stupid wings of their ideology. Currently however it is the right that is living in the wacky fringes plus they add in a heaping dose of hypocrisy to make there argument that much dopier.

      For instance. If the government had not bailed out the auto industry the right would have been bashing Obama for the lost jobs. Drill baby drill Jindal complains about too much government and in the next breath complains that government is not doing enough even though he refuses to use the national reserves made available to him. Or then there is the Boehner idiot calling the 6 month moratorium on deep water drilling an example of government over reach but he would rather see a “pause” in drilling – Huh? am I missing something here? Oh the right is all constitution this and that when it comes to their guns. But the rest of the constitution is just a bother that they would pretty much like to do away with. They want the governemnt to tell you who to marry, how to pray and they even want the government to punish the American children of illegal aliens by stripping them of the CONSTITUTIONAL citizenship

      This idea that you highlight here is an example of the stupid tea party rhetoric that the right is currently buying into:

      “The government is as onerous now as it was when British soldiers were boarded at my home and I could not speak my mind in the town square.” What? give me a break!

      With this kind of extreme thinking there is no way to talk together and this is light weight compared to the Hitler talk that is also common on the right. By the way, If the wacky right gets control of our government we won’t need to resort to second amendment remedies (per a prominent right wing candidate) we won’t need our guns, we will just vote them out of power as was done after the Bush disaster. Of course if the wacky right gets the country they say they want guns might be the only way to get them out of power

      • Brian Castner July 13, 2010 at 11:17 am #

        STEEL: What is simplistic is saying that if the two idealogically pure sides are diametrically opposed, any actual concrete legislation or policy that comes from the mixing of the two must be similarly opposing. I’m not implying that the application of this idea in the real world produces only GOOD government or only BAD government. I’m saying that our country’s challenge is finding the middle road in this polarized spectrum. Because of the founding of our country, this is a debate Americans have that other country’s are spared. But the policy pendulum will always swing in the middle.

      • STEEL July 13, 2010 at 12:12 pm #

        Except that the wacky right is dominating the conversation with idiocy right now. When you have Republican representatives filibustering everything in order to appease the far right teabaggers who are basically being lead by the nose via radio and fox demagogues no conversation of reason can be had on issues. There is no good will on the right to do anything because their stated policy is for the Obama administration to fail. The so called Obama care is almost identical to the Republican counter proposal to Hillary care in the way back days. Now all of a sudden their own (anti Hillary) plan is tantamount to Hitler Nazi communism. The only reason this watered down health plan was adopted was to appease the Republicans. It is hard to say the two sides are diametrically opposed when one side has bent so far in search of the middle while the other stands by like a petulant 3 year old complaining about everything and blaming everyone else for breaking the vase.

      • Brian Castner July 13, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

        Your rhetoric proves your political affiliation, not the merits of your case because you assume 1) it is the role of the opposition to do something other than oppose, b) that Dems, in a similar situation 8-2 years ago, did not similarly wish to simply see the Bush presidency fail (i.e. social security reform, wars, etc), and III) that there is no genuine or legitimate policy reason for R’s opposition, only cry-babiness.

        What would make you think R’s were more willing work with Dems? If more of them broke ranks on key votes? I think the Republican block vote is a function of a couple factors, all political, and unrelated to Rush or Beck. First, R’s have always had better party discipline. Second, R’s are all in safe seats – its the Dems who are in swing states and swing seats, and need middle of the road votes. And 3rd, and most importantly, the Senate is 1 vote short of fillibuster. If there were 60+ Dems, you’d see plenty of R’s cross the aisle. And on the second two points, the two parties would act (and have acted) exactly the same way if the roles were reversed.

      • STEEL July 13, 2010 at 1:28 pm #

        Except that Dems did go along with many Bush policies including his phone Iraq war and his freedom grabs in the name of national security. If you think any Republican is willing to speak out against Limbaugh and Beck you are sorely naive. Any Republican who has stepped out of line has found themselves up against a tea bag candidate. The fact is R’s are voting against stuff they used to be for only because it is now promoted by Obama. The Republican philosophy is only about opportunism not anything else. The poster child of this is McCain with his embarrassing pandering.

        By the way I am not a Democrat or Republican and the only President who I have voted for that has won was Obama.

      • Brian Castner July 13, 2010 at 1:36 pm #

        Like I said, individual votes are all about reelection politics. Hillary, to cite a famous example, voted for the Iraq war because she was running for President. Dems in swing states and swing seats voted similarly. Kennedy is the exception – he crossed the aisle in a safe seat, but he is from another age. The only R’s left now are the one’s in safe safe R districts, and thus they need to vote far right to keep their seat. Those were never the folks crossing the aisle anyway – now they are the only one’s left (McCain being the exception that proves the rule here) But we are now way off topic – maybe this is the seed of another discussion.

        For what its worth, my frustration is not with R’s in elected office, its with the R’s out of office. Gingrich knows better, but has done nothing but disappoint me with his rhetoric for the last 12 months.

      • STEEL July 13, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

        We are probably saying the same thing from different angles. My ultimate point is that the extreme idea is likely valid some of the time – slavery is wrong was extremist at one time – but when extremist non thinking policy takes over the whole platform you get trouble and that is the state of the Republicans these days. They continually paint themselves into indefensible positions in order to pander. My position is that Government is sometimes good and sometimes bad but is is absolutely needed and government action has absolutely benefited our country over time. The same goes of course for private industry and initiative. Either one of these things out of balance ends up as Totalitarianism or Somalia at the extreme. The Irony is that the less government crowd was crowing with joy as the Bush regime guided us down the totalitarian path but can’t handle the government stepping in to stabilize a major American industry without saying Nazi nazi nazi.

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