Our current discussion of what constitutes "freedom" is shaped far too much by a deeply flawed right-wing notion that every action by government is a threat to personal liberty and that the one and only priority of those who care about keeping people free is for government to do less than it does.
To say government must be small is nonsense. Government must be the size necessary to make a society and economy work, and that is not fixed -- nor could it possibly have been known by farmers in the late 1700s....
"No" should not be our governing philosophy.
In a nation, a society--a planet--facing challenges, problems, and changes on a scale unimaginable to most of us a few short decades ago, narrow-minded and fact-free strategies to advance an equally narrow-minded philosophy about the role of government should not be in anyone's Top Ten list of go-to approaches.
While that tactic stirs the masses eager for some reassurance from media and elected officials that their (unfounded) fears are in fact justified--and who cares about facts--its usefulness as a means of addressing the many challenges ahead of us is extremely limited. We all need to be better at figuring out how to find room in the vast middle between the polarized principles of Left and Right, but that doesn't happen without a more-informed and introspective citizenry willing to draw a deep breath before zealously parroting cheap and substance-free talking points.
The Constitution did not simply create limits on government, as some of today's conservative rhetoric seems to imply; it created a strong if bounded central government. It is important to speak up when those boundaries are breached, but it is important, too, to remember the aims of that government.
This government was not meant to be frozen in amber. It would have the ability to adapt as necessary to meet citizens' needs as those needs were expressed through representative government.
Not an easy task, to be sure.
There are and always will be differences in philosophies and objectives. We've managed to work within that framework for a few dozen decades now, so it's probably not entirely unreasonable to think it's possible to still do so now. That's going to require more than reliance on each party's familiar mouthpieces. We all have a role to play, and blind adherence to what others are telling us we should be thinking and believing should slide down the To-Do list.
How often can we hear that government should be more responsive to the problems Americans face now? But the vogue for simply assuming that government cannot -- or should not -- do much of anything about those problems leads to paralysis. This, in turn, further increases disaffection from government.
Given the challenges we face now and in the years ahead, "paralysis" and "disaffection" should not be the marquee attractions of our primary problem-solving, go-to entity.
Just as citizens must be prepared for the exercise of liberty, individuals must be given the skills and values -- the social capital -- that will allow them to succeed in a free economy. That is the essence of opportunity: a traditionally conservative, indeed a Lincolnian, goal.
But here we must be attentive to distinctions that are too often lost or muddled in today's debates and that implicate liberals and conservatives alike. Conservatives believe not in equal results -- a goal that leads to an excessive concentration of government power and to shared economic mediocrity -- but in equality of opportunity.
If conservatives are rightly at odds with liberals on this point (of government's role), however, many conservatives fail to see the extent to which equal opportunity itself, a central principle of our national self-understanding, is becoming harder to achieve.
Most conservatives, if pressed on these matters, would concede the propriety of some government role in helping create the conditions necessary for individuals and institutions to succeed. For too many in the libertarian and Tea Party wings of the GOP, however, such concessions are at best made grudgingly. These conservatives, if left to their own devices, would say almost nothing about these matters. And so crucial realities -- the fact of increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility -- tend to be swept under the rug. For too many, government's obligation to protect individual liberty comes first, second, and last, while concepts such as the common good, despite bearing their own conservative pedigree, are regarded as so much liberal claptrap.
While that approach may appease clueless extremists, tens of millions of our fellow citizens (friends, family members?) are suffering from the ravages of policies gone bad in an increasingly more complex world carrying its own burdens and challenges. Feel-good bromides ushered in on the remnants of an ideology better-suited to a world dozens of decades behind us are mostly just a waste of breath. People are suffering--often needlessly--and we have witless leaders chirping nonsense to the peanut gallery instead of doing what we presumably counted on them to do: representing constituents and acting for the common good.
The end of government, we're told in Federalist #51, is justice. Justice is defined as the quality of being impartial and fair and bestowing equal treatment. But it also means caring for the defenseless, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. This is a public as well as a private concern. A society ought to be judged on whether the weak and disadvantaged are cared for or exploited. And a just society is incompatible with one where government doesn't care for people who can't care for themselves.
In a speech given in September of 1859, Abraham Lincoln offered this:
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