Doing Good through Government
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Government and the Higher Values of Life
Michael Lerner is an author, rabbi, and editor of the magazine Tikkun. In his book, The Left Hand of God, he makes an eloquent argument for how politics can and should be a means for pursuing our desire to be compassionate and caring human beings. He believes that many Americans are experiencing a spiritual crisis – that they find themselves living lives where "feelings of emptiness, disconnection from others, and isolation have become common."4 He traces much of this problem to our capitalist culture, which promotes a view of life informed mostly by selfishness and materialism. We spend most of our working lives in business organizations, he points out, where competitive individualism and greed are the highest values and where we pursue our own interests, often at the expense of others' interests. Our participation in the market economy often seems to be mostly about acquiring money and things.
Many people, Lerner argues, want more than this from life – they want lives where they can express their higher values and where they can feel a real connection to their fellow human beings. Some people seek this kind of more meaningful life in private spiritual quests, but Lerner suggests that we should be seeking it through the public sphere as well. He calls for the pursuit of "a meaning-oriented approach to politics." An approach that has as its focus "the yearning of human beings for a world of love and caring, for genuine connection and mutual recognition, for kindness and generosity, for connection to the common good, to the sacred, and to a transcendent purpose for our lives."5 Political activity, he suggests, can allow us to pursue our most cherished values in a way that we cannot in our private lives or in the market.
This view of politics (and government) as a way of expressing our most humane instincts can seem naïve at first. Many people tend to see government as the realm where special interests groups try to get as much as they can for themselves – an activity motivated by selfishness and greed. There is obviously some truth to this. But that is not all of what government is about. It is also about people trying to help their fellow human beings and trying to promote what is good for all. That is why many people get involved in politics in the first place.
One of the reasons that so many Americans reacted so enthusiastically to Barack Obama’s campaign for president was that he tapped into this idea that government can be an expression of our higher values – that it can be a force for good in the world. He revived the liberal idea that it is virtuous and meaningful to work through government to solve people's problems and improve people's lives, and many voters responded strongly to this hopeful message.
Limiting Government Limits our Ability to Do the Right Thing
If modern democratic government and its programs are often a reflection of our best selves – our most decent selves – then right-wing attempts to drastically cut taxes and shrink the public sector can only serve to diminish our ability to act as responsible moral beings. The more we Americans accept the conservative vision of government as "bad," and the more we go along with their attempts to weaken this institution, the more we weaken our ability to make the world a better place. If we want to care for each other and do as much as we can to alleviate human suffering, then we need to acknowledge that government is often the best way to achieve those goals.
1. Barbara M. Blank, It Takes a Nation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 202.
2. Blank, p. 203.
3. Thanks to Michael Lipsky at Dēmos for making this point to me.
4. Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) p. 56.
5. Lerner, p. 158.