Government as the Champion of Justice, Equality, Freedom, and Security

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“Security” is sometimes not thought of as a democratic value in the same way as more obvious things like “justice” or “freedom.” But creating a safe and secure society and protecting people against major threats to their welfare are important functions of democratic governments. This was clear even to the creators of the Constitution, who listed “insure domestic Tranquility,” and “provide for the common defense” as central reasons for establishing our democratic government. They understood that an ordered, peaceful, and secure society is not possible without the constant action of government.

From the beginning, our democratic government was primarily concerned with our physical security – ensuring that the country was immune from outside attack, that citizens were safe from criminals, and that they were protected from threats like fire. But as our society has evolved, new threats to the welfare of ourselves and our families have emerged, and people have been able to use democratic government to help deal with these risks and create a more secure society. Citizens have organized themselves into lobbies and political movements that have demanded that the government lessen the serious risks associated with such things as economic depressions, excessive inflation, loss of a job, dangerous workplaces, environmental pollution, lack of health insurance, retirement insecurity, dangerous products, serious illnesses or disability, terrorism, bank failures, investment fraud, earthquakes and other natural disasters, and so on.

All of these things are worth worrying about because they can inflict major harm to our families and us – some can even ruin our lives. Modern governments and many of their policy programs have developed in large part to manage and minimize these kinds of serious risks to our well-being.3 Of course, we can do some things individually to try to minimize some of our risks. We can drive carefully; we can avoid smoking, we can eat more healthily; we can try to save more money, and so on. But for many of these risks, there is little we can do alone to effectively avoid or manage them. Such things as job loss, cancer, environmental pollution, terrorism, crime, industrial obsolescence, and economic downturns are basically out of our control as individuals. So we must act collectively to try to manage these risks – and that is where government comes in. In many cases, government programs are the only way to make our lives more secure. And the benefits of these programs go beyond merely minimizing these risks, they also allow us to be free of the constant anxiety and fear that would plague us if these risks were not managed effectively.

Government efforts to manage risks and increase our societal security basically take two forms: policies that share and reallocate risks, and policies that lessen risk. Risk-sharing policies usually take the form of social insurance programs that spread the risk around to a large number of people. Most of what we think of as social welfare programs – Social Security, Medicare, and so on – are in fact social insurance programs design to redistribute risks. It is no coincidence that we call these programs a “social safety net” – they are designed to allow us to live our lives with the knowledge that the government is there to catch us if we fall. So we all contribute to the Medicare program, and when we get old and sick, that program is there to take care of us – even if we don’t have the money to pay for that care ourselves. Social Security is not only there to give us some retirement security, but it also helps those who become disabled and unable to work. Even programs like food stamps and welfare, which may seem like redistributive programs aimed exclusive at the poor, do in fact have a broad social insurance dimension to them. Many Americans are only a job loss, a divorce, or a serious illness away from poverty. In fact, studies show that over fifty percent of Americans will become poor at some point in their life, so poverty programs actually act as a safety net for large numbers of citizens.4

Governments also try to actually reduce risk rather than just spread it around, and this usually involves some kind of regulatory policy. Environmental policies lower the risk that we will be poisoned by the air we breathe or the water we drink. Consumer regulations protect us from unscrupulous businesses that would cheat us or sell us dangerous products. Other rules minimize the workplace dangers and diseases. Governments also engage in regulating the larger economic system itself. Capitalist economic systems are prone to a whole host of malfunctions, from runaway inflation to prolonged depressions. The economic crisis that began in 2008 is only one of the latest examples of these problems. Modern governments use monetary and fiscal policy to keep in check these serious threats to our economic well-being. For example, the Federal Reserve board regulates interest rates to make sure that the economy is not growing too quickly or too slowly. And government can increase its spending to stimulate a stalled economy. Without this kind of macro-economic regulation by government, our welfare would be constantly threatened by these serious economic problems.

Even before the financial system meltdown, it has become clear that Americans are now living in a time on increased economic risks. People’s incomes have become less secure as wages stagnate, part-time jobs proliferate, and income inequality increases. Globalization has made many more jobs less secure and put more companies themselves at risk of going under. More and more companies are defaulting on their pension arrangements with their employees. More businesses are also not offering health insurance or are making their workers pay more for it. Ironically, as these risks increase, anti-government activists seem more interested in getting the government out of the risk management business. While in office, President Bush trumpeted his plan for an “ownership society” in which people would take much more individual responsibility for such things as their retirement and health care arrangements – all in the name of increasing their “freedom” and reducing their reliance on government. His plan to privatize part of Social Security and have people risk part of their retirement funds in the stock market was one primary example of this approach. But as James Surowieki has written in the New Yorker, this approach would have only resulted in making people much less economically secure:

The ownership society promises freedom, but at the price of a huge shift in risk, away from government and society and onto individual citizens. Social Security, Medicare, insurance – these are basically collective risk-sharing mechanisms. Rather than let each person run the risk of ending up destitute or sick, these programs pool the risk. Because the risk is shared, it can be managed, and people can be guaranteed a minimally acceptable outcome. In Bush’s brave new world, that guarantee will be eliminated.5

Conservatives are often very inconsistent – if not hypocritical – in their view of whether government should be providing security. On the one hand, they are often critical of government efforts, like social programs and regulations, which try to manage and reduce risks for our families and us. But on the other hand, they are obsessed with national security and are willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on that. They also support dozens of laws and programs that serve to minimize risks for companies and markets. For example, corporations are shielded by limited liability laws in every state. Bankruptcy laws also play a major role in protecting corporations from financial risks. Regulations that stabilize the money supply also work to minimize risks for businesses. So for conservatives, strong government action to protect us against foreign threats and to reduce the financial risks to business is highly desirable. They only oppose government risk management when it involves policies that protect the public.

During the last 100 years, government has emerged as the major way that we as a society increase our security and manage the uncertainties of modern life, and so any systematic attempt to cripple or reduce government will inevitably tend to make us less safe, less secure, and increase our burden of worry and anxiety. To the extent that we see security as an important public value, then, we must also value government and the government programs that help us to collectively shelter ourselves from the dangers and threats we all face.

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