Government as the Champion of Justice, Equality, Freedom, and Security
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Equality is another basic American value. It has been a part of American political culture ever since the Declaration of Independence observed that “all men are created equal,” which at the time was a very radical and revolutionary idea. Today, as back then, Americans deeply believe that no one is inherently better than anyone else – that we all deserve equal respect and equal treatment no matter who we are. But once again, this is a value that can really only be promoted by government. The equality fostered by government takes several forms. One is legal equality, which was a central concern of the founding fathers and a major focus of many of the amendments in the Bill of Rights. In a democracy, we are all equal before the law. We have the same legal rights and protections – we have the right to a lawyer, a jury trial, property rights, and so on. We have all become so used to these rights of equal legal treatment that we sometimes forget that they only exist because our democratic government mandates and enforces them.
Democratic government also promotes political equality. What separates democracy from other political systems is the idea that all citizens should have the same amount of power. Rich or poor, male or female, black or white – we should all have an equal say over what government does. Instead of rule by those who have the most power or the most money, the ideal of democracy is that we all deserve to share power equally. Government attempts to make this ideal a reality by conducting free and fair elections. In elections, everyone has exactly the same amount of political power – one vote. It is one of the rare situations in life when we all have the same power. This is intended to give everyone an equal chance to determine who will run the government. In practice, of course, other forms of power – such as campaign contributions – also have an influence over who wins elections. But that is exactly why there has been great pressure to enact campaign finance reform – so that the power of special interest money can be limited or eliminated in elections. The campaign finance reform movement aims to make sure that it is the vote – the only power that is allocated equally to all – that finally determines who rules in our government.
Government is also the only societal institution that is in a position to promote another kind of equality – economic equality. There is, of course, a great deal of disagreement in this country over what degree of economic equality is desirable. How much poverty is acceptable in the richest society in the world? Should we try to create more equal economic outcomes, or simply try to ensure equal opportunity? Can we have true equality of opportunity in a society with vast differences in wealth and income – in a society where some grow up in neighborhoods plagued by violence, drugs, and inferior schools? But while we debate these questions about economic equality, what is not debatable is that only government can create more of it. The market obviously does not do this – it is in fact responsible for the growing disparities in wealth and income that we have been experiencing over the last several decades. But government can use a variety of policies to lessen these economic inequalities. Minimum wage policies are, for instance, an effort to raise up those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder and create more economic equality. The Earned Income Tax credit is another policy mechanism for boosting the earnings of low income Americans. To the extent, then, that we want to address economic need and promote more economic equality, we have no choice but to turn to government.
Freedoms and Rights
When most people think of the defining characteristics of a democratic society – those that separate them from non-democratic societies – the first thing they usually think of are individual rights and liberties. A democratic society is a free society – with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, property rights, the right to a lawyer and a jury, the right to vote, and all the other protections we enjoy as individuals. But what we often forget is that these crucial rights and freedoms are enacted and protected by government. They are created in our state and federal constitutions, and our courts are the watchdogs that we use that prevent our rights and liberties from being violated. (For a more elaborate version of this argument, see the article, “Government as the Primary Protector of our Rights and Liberties.”)
Once again, there is virtually nothing in the private sector that protects these vital liberties. In fact, it is the propensity for private individuals and organizations to create oppressive and intolerable conditions for people that has led to a demand for a steady expansion of the rights and freedoms of individuals in America. Workers have organized and pressured the government to ensure their right to strike and their right to labor in a safe workplace. Environmentalist groups have fought numerous political battles to establish and protect our rights to breathe clean air and drink pure water. Women, the elderly, the disabled, and minorities have lobbied to free themselves from discrimination and segregation in the private sector. All of these groups have worked through government to increase their rights and liberties, and these are only guaranteed through various government policies programs that are created and maintained by various governments.
In short, we rely heavily on government to create and nurture the vital liberties that we have come to enjoy as part of our life in this democracy of ours. This fact, however, is lost on anti-government conservatives. In their view, government is actually the primary threat to our liberties and that is one of the main reasons it must be reduced to a minimum. (For a detailed rebuttal of this allegation, see the article “More Government Does Not Mean Less Freedom.”) I will not repeat the arguments of that article here, but simply point out that while democratic government can at times threaten our freedoms, it more often functions to protect and expand the freedoms and rights of average Americans.
The overall point is this: to the extent that we cherish important public values like justice and equality, we need a public sector strong enough and well-funded enough to make these things a reality. Conversely, attacks that weaken government also weaken it as a force for good in our society. They are attacks not simply on specific programs but on core American values. When a Republican Congress limits the use of class action suits, this limits our access to justice. And a refusal to raise the lagging minimum wage is a denial of fairness to low-income workers. If anti-government zealots succeed in their efforts to cut taxes, restrict social spending, and roll back regulations, we will then have a society that is less just, more unequal, less secure, and more unfair. In short, a less decent and less civilized society. Is this the kind of world we want to live in?
To read more about how government serves as an essential instrument for promoting higher values, see "Doing Good Through Government."
1."Workload of the Federal Courts Grew in Fiscal Year 2008." http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/PIO/news/2009/fedCourts_040109.asp. See also, Brian J. Ostrom, et al., "Examining Trial Trends In State Courts: 1976-2002," Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Volume 1, Issue 3, 755-782, November 2004.
2. Figures from Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Nation Spends $167 Billion On Criminal And Civil Justice Services,” May 2, 2009. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/eande.htm
3. See David A. Moss, When All Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).
4. Mark Robert Rank, One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 93.
5. James Surowieki, “The Risk Society,” The New Yorker, Nov. 15, 2004, p. 40.