Shaun Groves posts a thought-provoking discussion of Barack Obama’s “lists”, those things which government ought to do for us (ostensibly because we cannot do them ourselves) and those things we should do for ourselves (because we can). It’s a great summary of Obama’s stated position at the Democratic convention and well worth the read.
Shaun ends his post with a few questions for pondering, and I thought I would try and provide my answers here. However, before doing that, let me preface my answers with these comments.
The U.S. Constitution enumerates the various powers and responsibilities of our governmental branches much better than I could, and I encourage every citizen (and non-citizen for that matter) to read through the Constitution and be familiar with its contents. This is important because our system of government is laid out within the paragraphs of this document, and as a strict Constitutionalist I bristle at the continual growth of and encroachment by the “government” on virtually every aspect of our lives.
There’s no doubt that our country/society is markedly different than it was in 1787, and the subsequent ammendments make it clear that the founding fathers didn’t think of everything. But what they did think of was a means by which their original assumptions and conclusions could be challenged and altered if necessary. And that means of “changing our minds” should be understood by every single person who wishes to engage in the debate over what government should and shouldn’t be doing for us because it reminds us of the process by which we assign or strip away powers to our governmental entities.
Whew! Sorry for the rant, but I think that certain factions conveniently forget that we do have guiding documents which inform our thinking and debate on these matters. Now to Shaun’s questions…
1) What is it government must do because we cannot do it for ourselves?
I’ll defer to the Constitution on this one. It seems clear from the Preamble and the various enumerations of powers that the drafters of the Constitution had a fairly limited view of what government must do for us. Over the years, the phrase “promote the general Welfare” from the Preamble has been distorted and perverted to suggest everything from the actual welfare system (something clearly not intended by the language at the time) to redistribution of wealth to social engineering to any number of other perhaps well-meaning but still ill-conceived ideas.
Clearly I can’t defend the borders of the entire country, nor can I single-handedly (or even in small groups) ensure justice (even assuming we can agree on what “justice” really is). But creating jobs? Making our toys safe? That’s better left to the private sector and handled using existing laws and structures of commerce.
2) Which things on Senator Obama’s list belong and which don’t?
Here are the items that do belong (simply because it’s a shorter list):
- Protect us from harm
- Keep our water clean (see previous)
- Eliminate government programs that don’t work
- Make government programs that do work more efficient
Everything else on the list is something that can be accomplished without direct government involvement or intervention. I won’t bother to dissect the entire list, but the idea that government should “invest” in anything is preposterous. Government has no money to invest in anything other than what it takes from me through taxation or accumulates through return on those taxes.
3) Which things would you add to Obama’s list?
There’s really nothing else that needs to be added to the list. When in doubt, refer to the Constitution. I don’t remember reading that the government should guarantee a job for every person willing to work or provide affordable health care to every citizen. I realize there are some who would chalk that up to keeping us from harm or promoting the general welfare, but perhaps these aren’t rights guaranteed to us after all…
And here are Shaun’s “bonus questions”:
1) Is everything we aren’t doing for ourselves stuff we can’t and shouldn’t do for ourselves?
Probably not. We’ve abdicated our personal responsibility to our governmental entities in so many ways, from the education of our children to the management of our finances. And it only continues to worsen. With the exception of national defense and potentially the regulation of interstate activities (primarily commerce), there’s very little we can’t do for ourselves. We simply choose not to. It’s easier to let “the government” feed and clothe the poor, educate our kids, handle our savings, etc. That frees us up to watch more television, buy more stuff, and live the “good life”.
Frankly, we’ve become soft and complacent. Just as it was easier to let our parents tell us what to do and pick up our rooms for us and drive us to various places and fix our meals, etc., it’s easier for us to expect the government to do the same. But abdication means that sooner or later you don’t get to make decisions on even the things you want to because you’ll eventually give up your rights to everything.
2) Should government do the things we aren’t doing but should be doing or stick to the things we truly can’t do?
If we want the government to do something for us, then let’s ammend the Constitution and state that desire directly. Otherwise, let’s stick to the defined role of government and move on. I want my governmental entities to really do the hard stuff for me (defend the country, regulate interstate matters, etc.). I don’t want government creating jobs or directly managing health care or educating my kids. And if government would stop interfering with our ability to do these things, there’s no telling how quickly we could make demonstrative changes.
The problem is that too many Americans believe they can’t make it happen without government just as too many of our kids believe they can’t do anything without Mommy and Daddy helping out. In our house, the most vile words spoken are “I can’t…”. We should feel the same way as adults. “I can’t get a job.” Let the government give me one. “I can’t discipline my kids.” Let the government handle that. “I can’t afford gas for my car.” Heck, why can’t the government just go into the oil business?
We can do pretty much anything we set our minds to. We’ve just forgotten that less than 300 years ago, we built this country without a lot of government interference or involvement. We’ve forgotten how to be independent, in both thought and deed.
3) Is the only alternative to our individual ability the government’s collective ability? Are my only choices me and them?
No. There’s at least one other choice, and it’s “us”. “We the people” has meaning. It has meaning when thousands of people band together to help victims of natural disasters such as Katrina (yet another example where government of all parties failed us). It has meaning when neighbors patrol their streets to reduce crime. It has meaning when we donate our time, money, and other resources to help those less fortunate. And we do it every single day. We do it not because we expect to get something back but because we believe it’s the right thing to do.
Sure, there are those who will take advantage of others. But those kinds of people have been around forever and will continue to be around long after we’re gone. And some of those people are politicians who thrive on continuing to sow seeds of discontent and rancor (actually, that’s probably most politicians) so that we “need” them.
Looking back, this is one of the most rambling and disorganized posts I’ve ever written. But the ideas here are worth considering and discussing further. In the end, government is “us”, just like your high school civics teacher told you. To believe that government is anything else or that somehow government is imbued with some special powers we didn’t grant it is ludicrous on its face.
Thanks to Shaun for his original post. I’ll now be combing McCain’s statements and speeches for his list…