Sometimes I suffer from an amazing lack of imagination. This is one of those times.
I am enrolled to take online surveys from a few professional and credible polling firms – yet another symptom of the overly opinionated. Most of the surveys ask about business, personal economic habits, and cultural behaviors. On occasion the subject matter is political. Yesterday was one such occasion.
Among the questions were two that taxed my imagination. The available answers to both questions were a range from “strongly agree” tiered down to “strongly disagree.” No opinion is an option. The first stated, “Government should put limitations on the choices of individuals can make so they don’t get in the way of what’s good for society.” The second stated that “Government should do more to advance society’s goals, even if that means limiting the freedom and choice of individuals.” Liberals and conservatives should be able to fear the dangers of empowering government by degrading the individual.
First let us dispense with some silliness before someone suggests that total freedom would allow old men to have sex with eight-year-old boys, or randomly punch people in the face. The best thing I learned during undergraduate years came from a Constitutional history professor who said that a free man’s constitutional liberty to swing his arms wildly ended at the nose of the next people. To expound I will plagiarize a few caveats. Choices made in the exercise of freedom are valid only if they are made without fraud or coercion, they are made by adults, and they do not violate the right of anyone else to do freely make their own choices. That should protect us from reductio ad absurdum arguments and allow us to work from the sixteen specific powers granted the federal government by the Constitution.
Should government do more to advance society’s goals, even if that means limiting the freedom and the choice of individuals? This question begs several more questions. What does it mean to “do more? I would argue that society’s goals are advance by a government that actually does less. Which “government,” the federal, state, municipal, or other? I get the need for simplicity in survey questions, and assume they mean the federal government, but my point is that there is a massive difference in what I am prepared to allow each type of government to undertake. Alas, I will not pick too many nits here. Arguing semantics is fun, but the gist of the question is fairly obvious.
At last the big question. What are society’s goals? Again, to keep things simple, I will assume a national society and a national government.
In December of 2011, 83 percent of the American public disapprove of Congress. This is a little high, but ultimately part of a broad historical distaste for Congress. Yet, the incumbency rate for individual representatives is typically somewhere above 93 percent. In the tumultuous 1970 and 1972 House elections, the incumbency rate was 85 and 94 percent respectively. The lowest rate of the past 50 years was achieved twice, in 1970 and 2010. What of the Republican revolution of 1994? That year saw a 90 percent rate of reelection.
Consider health care reform. Americans have generally sought some kind of improvements in the provision and cost of health care by solid majorities. After rolling out his proposal, President Obama saw the specifics were rejected by a majority of American (and a larger majority of American voters). Yet, Congress strong-armed passage. Did this process advance society’s goals?
Without knowing the cost we should all rail against any diminution of freedoms in favor of some general “goal.” It is as the father of the Constitution James Madison said, “all men having power out to be distrusted to a certain degree.”
Do not think this is merely a right-wing critique. Though we most associate government activism with the left there are many Republicans only too happy to inflict their views on others.
Consider things that might be seen as advancing society’s goals. Obesity is a societal problem. In light of the Obamacare mandates regulating dietary habits could advance society’s goals. I can imagine regular deliveries of approved food and portions, meted out according to bureaucratic fiat.
Applied backwards, would it have been in societies interests to quarantine AIDS victims during the 1980’s? Forced abortions and one-child policies of China are examples of governments advancing the goals of society. The progressive Roosevelt administration thought it served national interests to inter Japanese-Americans during the 1940’s. History is littered with examples that are sure to anger one or another faction of Americans.
What of the cost? To affirmatively answer the survey and limit freedom to advance goals, may still be tempting. If you do not know the cost and are capable of envisioning a common sense measure of advancement, this may seem worthwhile. But costs are real and stated quite clearly in the survey question. Your freedom of choice will be limited, and in exchange society will see its goals advance.
Perhaps the government believes that email and private couriers have effectively collaborated to destroy the United States Postal Service. After all, the postal system is one of the sixteen powers specifically cited in the Constitution as being the purview of Congress. The Post Office does some very good things. A flat fee can send a document anywhere in the country no matter how far. Every American gets delivery six days (soon to be five) days a week. It is egalitarian and expansive, but is hemorrhaging money. Congress could decide that it is in the best interests of America to not pour billions of dollars into a postal bailout. Instead, they eliminate, or more practically, regulate email, FedEx, UPS and so forth, to the point of exploding their costs and restricting their use. Their loss is the post offices gain.
You have just had your freedom of choice curtailed in the name of the greater good. Are you happy?
Today, Gallup released a heartening poll result. In it, 64 percent of Americans say that the biggest threat to the country is “Big Government.” A full 83 percent of Republicans oppose big government, as do about two-thirds of independents and a surprising half of Democrats surveyed.
Inferred in the survey question is a rather biased premise. Contrary to the inference, I suggest that there is not a choice between advancing societies goals or protecting freedom. The two are not mutually exclusive. Rather, the goal of society was and ought to be protecting freedoms. The Preamble to the Constitution spells out the goals of our society, highlighting the lyric phrase, to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”