Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Government ≠ Society

There's much talk nowadays about the apparently irreconcilable differences between the Left and the Right. In nearly all of this talk I think one important, indeed central, point is missed. Acknowledging it will be a necessary first step in finding common ground, the sort needed to craft future policies with broad support.

Those on the Left argue that government should be used to advance social welfare in all its forms, beginning with providing basic necessities. One hears phrases like "No one should starve in a civilized society", or "Everyone deserves health care". These ends are pursued through various forms of legislation, taxation, 'redistribution' of income, etc.

Those on the Right (and by this I mean what people are beginning to call "Conservatives", or even classical Liberals) view government as a necessary but limited institution, largely because of the danger its power presents. As George Washington said, "Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." Liberty takes precedence over goals, however noble, because otherwise government power will eventually expand without limit. It is this outlook that is at the root of the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, and of course has helped ensure basic freedoms for quite some time now.

Can these two views of government be reconciled, at least to the extent that policies may be found that are acceptable to both the Left and the Right? I believe it might be possible - that the social goals of the Left may be pursued while respecting the libertarian requirements of the Right. As the wealth of the world grows, enabling more and vaster collective social projects, it will be increasingly important to get this right.

I think the problem stems from confusing 'society', or even 'civilization', with the government. Without this distinction I believe we will be doomed to a relatively primitive stage of political development. This confusion shows up quite frequently, and few seem aware of it. A recent letter in the Wall Street Journal about Obama's health care proposals noted that some key ones should pass because "Society should guarantee basic health care". What struck me was the unwarranted assumption that " Society = Government". At first this seemed innocuous, perhaps because I'd heard statements like it for years; but on second thought it expresses a somewhat extreme world view, that government is the only significant social actor. Why would anyone think that? How did this idea get traction?

I know from local politics that the resources government has act as a great draw - for instance, for small nonprofits, getting funds from the government is usually much easier than raising them independently. Fund raising requires time, effort, expense, and offers no sort of guaranteed return. On the other hand, gov't are of such a scale that the lobbying efforts required are paid back many times over. Government is the one easily accessible institution that can provide this kind of support. Then there are projects seemingly possible only to something with the resources of the federal government: building the Panama Canal, going to the moon, etc. This is often mistakenly used as justification - because the government is the only actor capable of acting, that it should. In a society with relatively little wealth, it may indeed be the case that the government is the only entity with the resources for large-scale projects, but as the wealth of the citizenry increases, this is less and less true. There are many billionaires now; Bill Gates has a net worth of nearly $100 billion. Individuals such as this, and particularly groups of such individuals, are capable of marshalling resources comparable to that of many sovereign states.

What are the implications of declaring that "Government ≠ Society", not only philosophically but practically? This distinction may offer some surprising solutions, generally involving social actors capable of substantial efforts but without the coercive power of government.

Consider the following proposal - intended as an example more than as an actual policy proposal, though some variant of it might well be practical. Government functions are divided into two parts: the "libertarian core" and the "optional social support" components. Your tax bill is similarly partitioned; and you only have to pay the bill for the "libertarian core" part. You're encouraged and expected to pay the "optional social support" part as well, but it's not required. Whether you do or not (or the percentage of it that you pay) is public information.

This should satisfy the most libertarian citizen - no longer will state power be used to extract money from citizens for projects of dubious constitutionality. It might well satisfy the most progressive citizen as well, as it would remove the moral and constitutional barriers to many efforts to alleviate perceived problems. Would it work? Would people pay more than they were absolutely required to? They might if it affected how they were perceived in society, whether they were hired by certain companies, or their chances when running for office ("Candidate X always paid the bare minimum!"). And of course if it wouldn't work, if the citizenry rejected funding social initiatives dreamed up by politicians, perhaps that's a better outcome - a kind of national referendum on those initiatives.

One could modify this proposal in many ways to make it more practical and effective, but I offer it as only one of many possible innovations that might spring to mind once one has broken away from the idea that society's only agent is government. We may eventually look back and see that the separation of social reform efforts from government is as necessary a step as the separation of church and state, and for similar reasons: social reform is usually predicated on a particular view of what an ideal society should be, and there are a multiplicity of such views, just as there are different religious catmas and dogmas. In a free society these choices should not be made because of government coercion.

Until then, we face the issues that arise when the coercive power of the state is used to further questionable ends, often for political reasons. As Robert Heinlein said, "A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul" - it is this sort of politics that can corrupt democracy.