The Big Question

As the health care debate unfolds, and the teabaggers protest/disrupt/make asses of themselves at town hall meetings across America, I’m reminded of one of the most important questions the Founding Fathers had to deal with when they were drafting the Constitution.

What is the purpose of government?

It isn’t often that a nation gets the opportunity to start from scratch like we did (unless you’re France). We got to ask ourselves in 1788 the most fundamental question a society can ask: What is it that we want our government to do for us?

The FFs had plenty of information to work with: the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition, the various examples of history, and, most recently, the English Revolution and the responses to that revolution from the Enlightenment philosophers. The FFs were, however, dealing with a rather unique set of circumstances. They had, after all, just gotten out from under the thumb of what they perceived to be an oppressive government. That definitely colored their perception of what a “good government” would look like.

All things considered, I think they did pretty well. But I do think it’s fair to ask the question again now and then. In a modern world, with modern issues, has the answer to that question changed at all? Is what we want out of our government different from what the FFs wanted? And more specifically, what does “limited government” really mean any more? Have we strayed too far from the ideals of our founders, or have we not strayed enough?

As always, I have my own thoughts on these questions, but I’d like to hear what you all have to say.

20 thoughts on “The Big Question

  1. and if, as a later president said-america needs business. a nationalized SINGLE PAYER SYSTEM-medicare for all-would HELP BUSINESS COMPETE.

  2. Just my opinion, but Jeffersonian ‘limited government’ was undermined by Jefferson himself when he bought the Louisiana territory; subsequent expansion of the federal government has been, with some exceptions, less ideology or radical ideology, and more a reaction to conditions, i.e, the federal government expanded rapidly during the Civil War and immediate aftermath (during the Civil War, Lincoln helped create the National Science Foundation and signed the Homestead Act…imagine…the government just GIVING away land–well, provided you were a white male)
    The Great Depression and WWII saw a big expansion in the role of the feds; again, just my opinion, but this seems more a practical reaction to ginormous crises than any Roosevelt-ian hidden ideology; on the other hand, the creation of the Department of Defense and subsequent morphing into the military industrial complex seems more than just a little ideologically based. I suppose some people could accuse LBJ of having an ideological agenda re: the Great Society, though he paid a political price…
    Sorry to digress. Anyway, I doubt seriously a nation in this day and age could function under any sort of genuine ‘limited government’ of the kind libertarians seem to genuinely believe in, and which conservatives pay lip service to while in reality funneling money and power to their political cronies…

  3. Agree fully with Pansy, above.
    One thing I’d include is that our American mythology is often centered around the lone cowboy who rides into town and puts things straight and then rides into the sunset. Look at all the hero films with the individual hero. Very little along the thread of the group action.
    Only problem is that Daniel Boone can’t move west any more to escape having neighbors. Our population is becoming much more compact. As we are so compact, what I do effects my neighbor. To simply survive, we both buy and trade from other countries. In short, we need to form a communal / global mythology.
    My guess is that this is one reason the conservatives absolutely detested the “it takes a village.” This attacked the core of their outlook. It partly explains why Reagan and Bush II were such darlings – both pretended to be western ranchers. Obama, being a community organizer, is a direct affront.
    So we need to build a communal outlook. This spills into Healthcare, global activism, etc. We can’t look out just for ourselves. Rather , we look out for ourselves by looking out for others.
    Unlike Bush, we can’t invade and tell people what to do. We all have intrinsic value (endowed with inalienable rights) and must see that value so that we can work with each other. So I say a community organizer fits the ticket nicely.

  4. That’s exactly the sort of thing I was getting at, Michael. The government has expanded to meet the needs of specific situations, not necessarily on the basis of ideology. So I think it makes sense to take a look at that and question whether it’s still meeting our needs.
    If it is, then the whole ideological *opposition* to expanded government makes little sense.

  5. Heh, MapleStreet, the lone cowboy theme is far older than that–George Washington chose as his model the legendary Roman citizen-soldier, Cincinnatus. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis–that model works really well in pre-industrial societies. Not so much in heavily urbanized, technologically advanced, globally-connected modern America.
    That gives me a whole new perspective on the Republican party. It may be one factor in their appearing increasingly out-of-touch.

  6. The lone cowboy becomes a mere global consumer the moment he pulls the pickup up to the gas pump (sorry for the gender bias there–can sub cowgal/she if you feel like it.)

  7. It no longer matters what the founding fathers intended. The Supreme Court effectively abandoned the Constitution as the foundation of rule of law when they appointed GW Bush president in 2000. Bush and Cheney took that as a mandate to establish what is, in effect, exclusive executive authority. The purpose and function of the U.S. federal government has achieved full fruition of what started in 1981 under Ronald Reagan–the absolute supremecy of corporate wealth and hegemony. Corporate rule fully explains everything that our government does–and doesn’t do. The top one percent owns and controls the rest of us, and the conservative dream of corporate feudalism has been fulfilled.

  8. I’m gonna have to read up on Cinnatus. Just looking at Wikipedia (the great scholarly resource ;-), I can see Washington emulating Cinnatus by being a dictator that stepped down voluntarily. But interesting that Cinnatus tried to keep the plebians down – kind of like the repub assault in the middle class?

  9. Indeedy, MapleStreet. Washington’s big thing was the dictator stepping down thing, yes. I think he chose to ignore the plebian issue. Selective reading of history is an American tradition. 😉
    Michael, you may not have intended this, but I now have “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” stuck in my head. Sigh…

  10. So let me ask you this, Sandman: if your assertion is true, that corporate interests are completely in control of our government (which I think at best overstates things), is that inherently a bad thing?
    Devil’s Advocacy at work here. I think you can make the argument that in many cases, the interests of the population as a whole and the interests of corporate America coincide. Rule of law, basic civil rights, government funding for basic infrastructures (transportation, public works, etc.)–all those work to the benefit of corporations, too. Even government regulation seems to have improved the lives of most Americans (look at the world of Upton Sinclair if you doubt me).
    I guess my point is this: if corporate interests were both in complete control *and* their goals were inherently bad for most Americans, we’d have a revolution. I think neither of those elements is entirely true. Partially, perhaps, but not entirely.

  11. The whole notion of government somehow still being something even remotely resembling what the Founders envisioned has been completely blasted away in the last sixty or so years.
    They created a democratic republic, and we are now a national security state, with a military (and I include the intelligence services in that generic category) that has taken mission creep to stratospheric levels, has pretty much decided that its fundamental Constitutional role of territorial defense is subordinate to cutting up the world into military zones and then occupying them, and has become a government unto itself, taking most of the discretionary budget for itself and its ambitions.
    The Bill of Rights is regularly under attack by that state apparatus, and the balance of power is now surely and clearly tilted in favor of the Executive.
    I think it’s entirely safe to say that the Founders would be appalled with what has been done with their handiwork. It’s certainly not what they intended government to be for us.

  12. Sandman brings up an area I hadn’t thought of. Legally, corporations are entities – that is they are people.
    What should the role of the corp be in the Constitution?

  13. MapleStreet, one thing I think should be absolutely true is that corporations are NOT considered people for purposes of Constitutional rights, such as, let’s say, free speech. A little Constitutional case in the 1970’s, Buckely v. Valeo, derailed real campaign finance reform on the notion that it would interfere with corporate free speech.
    My feeling is that until corporations can be punished the same way individual people can be — put in jail, say, or even executed (being dissolved)– they are not to be treated as people in other contexts as well.
    Re: the idea of the lone cowboy, the very notion is absurd. The first thing that people did when they went into new territories was to set up communities. I often think the libertarians are taking Rousseau’s notion of a state of nature a little more literally than even Rousseau himself took it. I doubt there was ever a time in human history or prehistory where you had any significant number of people living without some form of government.

  14. BuggyQ, I can tell you’re a teacher, challenging my assumptions, so if I may… the corporation is not evil in and of itself. In theory, it allows a large number of people to participate in the ownership, operations and profitability of an economic enterprise. But like everything else since Reagan, the function and operation of the enterprise has changed. Instead of maintaining the viability of the corporation for the good of workers and consumers, corporations have pursued a singular purpose–the maximization of profit. This has led to the virtual elimination of the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy. Ergo, the pursuit of profit by corporations has been devastating to American workers, families and communities.
    Secondly, the Reagan “revolution” eliminated government restrictions on mergers and acquisitions while removing many, if not most, anti-competitive regulations meant to protect consumers from corporate fraud. As a result, there is very little free-market competition in most communities. For example, the town I live in is a medium-sized city (appx. 30K in/out city limits) in rural southeast Missouri. Walmart is the main retailer. AT&T provides all the local phone service and a majority of the wireless. Depending on where you live, there’s only one choice for cable service. Sure, there are other options like satellite, but they are considerably more expensive. We only have one hospital, and they charge more than the considerably better hospitals in St. Louis. Deregulation and corporate consolidation has led to fewer choices and steadily increasing prices for consumers.
    Thirdly, the campaign finance structure ensures that corporate interests will enjoy virtual ownership of congressional representatives and senators, who simply cannot compete, even in a primary, against opponents flush with corporate cash. Witness the laughable health care “reform” debate today. The best solution Obama and the Democrats can fashion is to add 47 million uninsured Americans to a for-profit system that is the very reason for the the crisis in the first place. Instead of the only solution that makes any sense–single-payer–we get this Frankenstein monster that angers both fiscal conservatives and rational progressives. And why? Because no one wants to take on health care corporations, insurance companies or Big Pharma. Health care bureuacracy costs American consumers $400 billion a year, more than enough to cover everyone in America with health care (
    In summary: 1) Corporations have destroyed the American manufacturing sector, the American skilled labor force and countless communities through downsizing and outsourcing in order to maximize profit; 2) Deregulation and consolidation of corporations has dramatically reduced free-market competition, limiting consumer choice and increasing prices; 3) Corporate control of the executive and legislative branches has ensured that laws are made for the benefit of corporate profit; even when the practical solution that would benefit the most Americans is obvious, it is not even discussed because the tacit assumption is that profit is holy and inviolable.

  15. Nora, while I agree that corporations aren’t mentioned in the constitution, for the purposes of many laws they essentially become individuals. But as you point out, they are somehow not individuals in other cases.
    But like it or not, corporations are gigantic “movers and shakers” on both the national and international level. I’d personally even go as far as to say that on the international stage, corporations are more powerful than people. So in building our utopia, they can’t be escaped.
    I’d also agree with you that the lone cowboy is absurd (coming from a religious side, it is a dismissal of our basic make up and the commandment to love your neighbor). But it is a strong myth in america.

  16. p.s. George Carlin said why we don’t have a revolution–the corporations have bought most of us off with gadgets…cell phones and iPods. Most people, even those with very little, won’t risk what they have to fight the corporate power. Most of us in the working class know that to even openly voice opposition to the corporate power structure is to invite firing. It really is, in my opinion, corporate feudalism, and none of us peasants want to piss off the lord.

  17. Thanks, sandman. Great comment. I may not agree entirely with your argument (though I certainly agree with big chunks of it), but I appreciate the reasoned debate. (And I wish I were this good at challenging assumptions in the classroom–I just don’t think fast enough live. Sigh…)
    Nora and MapleStreet, I’ve been listening to the How Stuff Works: Stuff You Should Know podcasts for months, and I just listened to one about a week ago aboutCorporate Personhood. The story about how that concept came about is an entertaining one. Thomas Jefferson wanted to include a limitation on the lifespan of corporations in the Constitution (though obviously he wasn’t able to). Smart dude, that Jefferson.

  18. I’m late to the party, but, it isn’t corporations that are the primary disease infesting our country. That disease is the unbridled pursuit of wealth by the wealthy. Corporations are just pieces of paper, when you get down to it, and the political contributions they can make are limited the same as the contributions from real people. It is employees of the corporations, which most of us are, who contribute, and get tallied as part of a corporate contribution.
    One thing corporations do that is morally wrong, to use a mild term, is pay lobbyists huge sume of money to bribe Congress and other government members to do their bidding. That bit of “business” is almost totally unregulated, and is the real strength of the military industrial complex.
    But, our government, at least since Reagan, may he forever rot in the lowest reaches of the hottest place known to man, has existed primarily to grease the skids for wealthy folks seeking to increase their wealth as fast as possible. Iraq was about that. The munitions industry is about that. The oil industry is about that. The near destruction of the world’s economy was about that. etc. And, that is the thing that simply has to be corrected or our great experiment as a “democratic” nation will end as a failure.

  19. The question “What is the purpose of government” would need to be reworded “purposes”, for the U.S., of course. Providing needed service to our 300 million-plus populaton requires our government to provide basic defenses (not our out-of-control military-industrial complex Eisenhower wished, unsuccesfully, to prevent), as well as basic infrastructure meant to serve people and their businesses alike. A basic purpose which, amazingly, has become controversial, is government’s responsibility to reduce suffering.
    When movement conseratives try to deny funding for basics like proper nutrition, education and health care, they assult a basic premise of a civilized government. This ideology rquires them to come up with “solutions” which don’t solve problems, all on the holy grail of “personal responsibility”. For example, personal health care savings accounts can’t be afforded by people making the low wages required by another tenet of their ideology. Moreover, even thoe who could afford them would lose everything, not just their health, with one catastrophy. Making people personally responsible for not contracting cancer is a very iresposible way to govern.
    My wife and I watched a segment on CNN this morning, detailing a single mother of a 4-year-old. She lost her job due to the economic downturn, and quickly lost her apartment. They lived in their van for a while, and then the van was towed time after time; they’re now pitching themselves of the couches of friends. They’re recieving limited services from public and private agencies both suffering from funding problems.
    My wife, a compassionate and progressive woman, remarked how the story displayed the intelligence and decency of the mother. It was a sign of the effective rhetoric (I’d call it propaganda) of the conservative movement that my wife sounded a bit surprised that the mother would be worthy of sympathy. These are the people who government should serve, partially by restoring a reasonably progressive tax, not the increasingly regressive ones with which we are currently burdened.

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