Tag Archives: Yin Yang

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.