Following a recent editorial in this paper, “Another stab in the back,” numerous readers commented about the role of government. Thus I decided to talk with you today about this. Hold on, don’t get up and leave, I am not going to go on about Hobbs and Locke, Adam Smith or Rousseau. OK, I will, but just a tiny bit.
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This question lies at the very heart of the difference between conservatives, moderates and liberals, Democrats, Libertarians and Republicans. It is what fuels the gridlock in Congress, the nastiness of the talking heads, and is the underlying basis for the lure of the Tea Party.
The question is not, for example, whether people should have health care, for no one with a shred of compassion would wish someone who is sick or injured to go untreated. The question is how we should pay for it. The next question is why does it cost so much, but I’ll leave that for another time.
The question is not whether we want safe drinking water and clean air, for I cannot conceive of anyone wanting their children to drink contaminated water or breathe polluted air. The question is should the federal government be responsible for this, should it be dealt with by the various states, or self-policed by the industries themselves.
“Government should be small enough to drown in a bathtub,” as Grover Norquist flippantly said, or “small enough to crawl into my uterus,” as Helen Philpot quipped. And those who say, “Right on, Mr. Nor-quist!” have no idea of what it would be like to actually live in that kind of society.
Want to see the effects of poor or no safety regulation? Look no further than the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas last year that killed 15 and literally flattened a town, or the contamination of Charleston, W. Va.’s drinking water from a chemical spill.
It now turns out that the chemical containment tanks, built in the 1940s and 1950s, near Charleston had not been inspected since 1991. And numerous public advocacy groups were literally screaming for inspection. But jobs were so important that the state and local government did not want to do anything that might chase business away.
I do not believe that even die-hard Republicans or Libertarians would like to live in the kind of world their political philosophy inevitably leads to. This would be about as close to a state of nature (the absence of authority and any rules of the road) as one could get. As Thomas Hobbes said, way back in 1651, life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short. Under a Libertarian view of the world, life would be nasty for everyone, except those with sufficient wealth to cushion the blow, the haves versus the have-nots.
However, there is a lot of middle between the extremes of anarchy and totalitarianism. So the question comes down to finding the Goldilocks Solution — not too small, not too big, but just right.
But how do we find that careful balance? And now the arguments begin — as your wants are not necessarily my wants. The question comes down to how big is big or how do you quantify a qualitative measure?
I remember watching a TV cooking show when the host asked the audience, “How do you make meringue?” “Egg whites and sugar,” shouted someone. “And how much sugar to each egg white?” he then asked. “Two tablespoons,” someone else shouted. “How big an egg?” he asked. “A large egg,” someone called out. “But how large is large?” he asked. Dead silence. Answering his own question he said, “Just big enough to make the chicken’s eyes water.”
Thus I offer you my solution — government should be just big enough to make its citizens’ eyes water.
Republicans who want smaller, less intrusive government ignore the lessons of history. The stances of our major political parties were virtually reversed a hundred years ago. Teddy Roosevelt, a proud Republican, said during the election of 1912, “If the problems created by the industrial age were left unattended, America would be sundered by those dreadful lines of division that set the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ against one another.” He then said that he proposed to use the “whole power of the government to protect those trodden down by the ferocious, scrambling rush of unregulated purely individualistic industrial age.”
Think things have changed in the last hundred years? Think again. Just look at the current problem of wealth inequality in the United States, a problem that incensed Teddy Roosevelt as it does Barack Obama today.
Throwing little rhetoric hand-grenades at each other may be satisfying to some but it really doesn’t solve anything. For solutions we need responsible government. But democratic government, nationally or locally, is not a spectator sport and works well only if we actively participate. It would serve us well to remember that the United States is the only nation in history formed in the liberal tradition of individual freedom and equality for all — from the git-go.
The bottom line is that Goldilocks has burned through many bowls of porridge and still has not found one to her liking.
Gene Altshuler is a resident of Cameron Park and a community activist interested in economic development and local government.