Defining the Role of Government

The Need for a National Vision

By Elliot Borgman

What is the role of government in America?
Only if we can answer this question, can we then create that government. The Declaration of Independence and our Constitution provide the start, and most Americans can agree here.

From our Declaration of Independence we are given our unalienable rights: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and again later in the document, safety and happiness. American revolutionaries deplored the King of England for denying immigration, local fair administration of justice and trade, trial by jury and levying taxes without representation.

From our Constitution the purpose is clear: to make a more perfect union, to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide a common defense, promote general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

We generally understand about providing for our common defense, and the federal government budget and spending amply demonstrates our national commitment here. We also do not quibble about money for a court system and department of justice.

So should we argue about promoting domestic tranquility, general welfare, and blessings of liberty?
On the most basic level, this should mean food and shelter and health for all citizens, as there cannot be domestic tranquility without these. To enjoy the blessings of liberty we have our Bill of Rights (including freedom of speech, press, religion, and permitting trial by jury) as the first amendments to the Constitution, and have (at state constitution level) encouraged public education. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania says the State will pay for public education. The Courts have allowed this to be less than 100%. General welfare must include clean air and water and responsible stewardship of natural resources. And by specifying our posterity, it means we must pay these forward to future generations.

We must apply these tenets to those things not anticipated or yet invented by our founding fathers. Since I was trained as a scientist, I believe facts matter, and those can be verified by independent tests.

It is not hard to extrapolate some of these concepts to our day. Adequate food and shelter need to be provided by our social safety nets. To be domestically tranquil, these should be ruled by generosity, not parsimony. Likewise health care is simply required. A better educated and healthy public can better lookout for itself and its community.

We have more recently lost sight of this vision by the re-branding of the radical right as the Tea Party. Libertarian ideas that have some appeal but were largely rejected because they are impractical as governance have gained credence and a drumbeat supported by right wing media. As an example, I just got an appeal in the mail from the Smithsonian Institution. As our national museum, they should be amply funded by the federal government, and not need to ask the public for support. Why should hospitals or prescription medicines pay to advertise?

Crippling regulations are hated because they slow free trade. Yet the regulations are almost always a response to corporate misdeeds against the general welfare. We have allowed capitalistic competition to be perverted by monopolistic tendencies.

For example, Sinclair broadcasting has become one such entity, and former rules limiting any one outlet to dominate markets evaporated. Now Sinclair dictates to its stations to read how they are unbiased, yet decry other “fake news!” A chill ran down my spine the other day, when I read a speculation that we are so polarized that Jesus Christ might lose votes if he ran as a Democrat. It does appear that “Christian Values” voters will support almost any behavior to win. Instead of guessing What Would Jesus Do, I suggest a vision from Star Trek: What Would Picard Do? Democracy is forging agreement from different sides with majority rule, not gaining a solid majority first and ignoring the others.

I also understand those who are disillusioned by the Democratic Party. It is hard to wrestle with a pig and not get dirty. I admit to idealism, but do suggest a national vision where we are:

Strong on Defense like John F. Kennedy.
Strong on Civil Rights like Lyndon Johnson.
Strong on the Economy like Bill Clinton and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Strong on Human Rights like Jimmy Carter.
Strong on Ethics and Dignity like Barack Obama.