Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Is The Role Of Government In Our Lives?

      The founding fathers left us with two concise views of the role they expected government to play:
  1. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “...all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men...”
  1. The Preamble to the Constitution states, “ order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, [we] do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
      Because of the makeup of society, however, the fathers were not quite as principled, at least by today's standards, as one would expect from the foregoing statements. Electors in federal elections were required to have the same qualifications as the most numerous branch of the state legislatures, which in every state was made up of landowners. Thus to the fathers, the word “men” meant landowners – renters, servants, women, Indians and slaves were excluded. (Although most civilized nations had outlawed slavery by this time, the fathers were forced to either ignore it, or face non-ratification by the southern states.)
      The resulting government turned out to be what we today would call “libertarian.” With the above exceptions, citizens were assured equal basic liberties, and the distribution of income and wealth was determined by a free market. And at least in theory, everyone was free to pursue his own conception of happiness.
     But in practice the theory soon broke down. Because of differences in family income, social status, gender, race, etc., some people had a societal handicap which could not be overcome regardless of the effort they expended. Just as today Bill Gates's son has a better chance of finding happiness than the son of an absentee father and a crack-addict mother, so the son of a Virginia tobacco planter was more likely to find happiness than the son of a pioneer hacking out a log cabin on the frontier. The playing field was level, but through no fault of their own, some people found the goalposts further away than they were for others.
     The first effort to overcome the accidental disadvantages of birth was the institution of compulsory public education. Although enacted in Massachusetts as early as 1852, it was not until 1918 that all states required children to attend at least elementary school. By means of Head Start programs, job training, subsidized housing, healthcare, etc., the movement for equality of opportunity has made significant headway, especially during the past fifty years,
     But there is one inequality that no amount of government tinkering can equalize, nor should it: people are born with different talents and attributes, e.g., musical ability, good health, physical attractiveness, mathematical aptitude, athletic ability, etc. In particular, if an individual is born with an attribute that society values, he has a great advantage.
     Think of Derek Jeter's ability to hit major league pitching, or Albert Einstein's capacity for theoretical thinking. In an earlier society, say, during the Spanish Inquisition, Jeter would have been considered the village good-for-nothing, and Einstein would probably have been burned at the stake.
     Of course, these examples are exceptional - most people are born with both advantages and disadvantages clustered around “average.” As a result, there will always be some people who do better than others. In my opinion, this is as it should be; unless people can profit through their efforts, there is no incentive.
     But there is a caveat: people should not get rich to the detriment of lower social classes. And it is on this point, again in my opinion, that government has gone astray.
     The founders retained a healthy fear of corporate power, and wisely limited corporations exclusively to a business role. They were forbidden from attempting to influence elections, public policy, and other realms of civic society. The privilege of incorporation was granted selectively to enable activities that benefited the public, such as construction of roads or canals. Enabling shareholders to profit was seen as a means to that end. In theory, anyone could strive to compete and win.
     Compare that view with the power of corporations today. Many international corporations have greater assets than some nations. In 2010 the Supreme Court decided that corporations are persons – they may do anything a natural person may do, except vote, e.g., they may donate any amount of money they desire to influence an election, with the exception of direct contributions to a candidate, without having to disclose how much they spent. In 2010, over 11,000 corporate lobbyists doled out almost $500M to politicians. The fact that corporations cannot vote is unimportant – they can have the best government money can buy.
      The Supreme Court did not take into consideration the fact that a corporation has only one goal: profit. Every move a corporation makes is with that goal in mind; even charitable contributions are made in anticipation of furthering public relations. A corporation has no heart, no soul, no feelings, no empathy. It will replace workers with machines, ignore environmental safeguards, and even leave the United States in order to avoid taxes and move jobs, all with the ultimate prize, profit, in sight. The fact that the lower social classes are hemorrhaging money, jobs, healthcare, housing and other necessities means nothing.
     Now don't get me wrong – I realize that only corporations can invest in the research and development required to develop and improve our lifestyle. For example, according to PhRMA, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry’s advocacy group, it costs $1.3 billion (in 2005 dollars) to bring a new drug to market. Corporations are indispensable, but their power is out of control.
     Why do we keep electing politicians whose interests are so contrary to our own? It's because our corporate controlled media keeps feeding us the rags-to-riches stories a la Bill Gates and Steve Jobs: Work hard and you will succeed. We never hear the true story: A kid from the poorest fifth of all households has a 1% chance of reaching the top 5 percentile income bracket, while a kid from the richest fifth has a 22% chance. Polls indicate that a majority of Americans think the richest fifth of them own 59% of the wealth; the actual figure is 84%.
     I am not sure that in this case the truth will set us free, but it can't hurt. Only by curbing corporate power can government return to its primary role: securing the right to the pursuit of happiness. As regards corporations, the founding fathers had the right idea.
      Category three, distortion of spelling, is the home of many, many puns, so love them or hate them, it's pun time. Puns, or "groaners" as some folks like to call them, are fun. Try them on your friends and relatives, but keep a straight face when you tell them and be prepared for GROANS... then you'll see why they are so called . . . so enjoy them and pass them on!
      Distortion of Spelling – There Are Only Seven Jokes

There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are

available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

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