On the Proper Role of Government in a Democratic Society
I previously proposed that Neoprogressives are “libertarian in our personal affairs, but committed to community and convinced that government can and should act (and act competently) in the community's interest whenever it can do so effectively.” HL responded: “Sorry, I regard government as similar to fire, it is useful in its place but terribly dangerous if not banked and controlled. Such a stance as you've described is an invitation to more government power and intervention. I believe government should do only those things people cannot reasonably do for themselves. The more power we give it, the more opportunities for abuse there are. And contrary to private efforts, we have no choice with government, it dictates the terms and takes our money and freedom regardless of how well spent the money or how effective and reasonable the regulations.”
My original proposition was intended to rebut those neoconservatives who paint all government as a bad thing. Ronald Reagan set the tone when he stated famously, “government isn’t the solution to the problem, it is the problem.” Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, has said that cutting taxes is only a stepping stone to the greater goal of starving government until it’s “small enough to drown in the bathtub.” NeoProgressivism is opposed to those views.
HL correctly describes government as being like fire, harmful unless it is “banked or controlled.” He errs, however, in failing to give fire its due. It is more than “useful in its place.” It is tremendously useful; much, much more useful than it is harmful; indispensable to human existence, even. In households around the world, much more time is spent kindling useful fires than extinguishing dangerous ones.
If government is like fire, then Reagan’s and Norquist’s statements are silly on their face. No one would say that all fires are problems, not solutions. No one would say that all fires should be drowned. Certainly fire and government both need to be “banked and controlled,” but the truth is that they usually already are. When a government simultaneously is democratically elected and protects certain individual rights against the tyranny of the majority, then the “fire” of that government is nicely banked and controlled, and – so long as democracy and civil rights are maintained – the “fire” of such a government almost always does immeasurably more good than harm. To say that government should only act when there is no other option is akin to saying that, because fire can be dangerous, food should be eaten raw and cold whenever possible.
Nor do I agree with HL’s statement that “contrary to private efforts, we have no choice with government, it dictates the terms and takes our money and freedom regardless of how well spent the money or how effective and reasonable the regulations.” Quite the opposite. I have no control over how private individuals or industries conduct their affairs. If a landowner upstream from me clearcuts the riverbank, then my land will silt up. Microsoft and Halliburton do as they please with little regard for the concerns of their minority shareholders, let alone non-shareholder citizens. On the other hand, I am an owner of my government. If I believe my government is misspending my money or infringing my freedoms or enacting ineffective and unreasonable regulations, I have recourse at the ballot box, in the press, in the courts, and in my ability to run for office myself. What’s more, government and business have different responsibilities. Businesses exist to generate profit for their owners, even if that means externalizing costs by polluting the air we all breathe or omitting safety devices. Government, on the other hand, exists to serve the public interest; harming its citizens runs contrary to its reason for being. Given the choice, I’ll trust the government to protect my interests, not private industry.
The original Progressives called on government quite often. Progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt used government to create what he called a “square deal” – i.e., to ensure that every player in the capitalist game was dealt a fair hand, as against the robber barons who had amassed such huge fortunes, and such legally watertight monopolies, that they effectively “held all the cards.” When factory owners asserted their “property right” to keep their factory doors locked to prevent theft and work-dodging – a “right” that resulted in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, when hundred of workers locked into a garment factory burned or jumped to their deaths when it caught fire – the original Progressives called on government to regulate working conditions. TR established the first National Parks, using taxpayer money to buy land that could have been developed to generate profit for individuals and instead placing it under public ownership for the benefit of all. Richard Nixon, who despite his faults was in some ways the last populist Progressive, signed the Endangered Species Act, which simply says that property rights do not include the right to act in a way that extincts a species that has existed on that property for thousands of years longer than the property owner has.
Norquist and his ilk have expressly stated that government overreaches every time it regulates private commerce, protects worker safety, or regulates private property to protect species from extinction. Janice Rogers Brown, a federal judicial nominee over whom there was much acrimony in the Senate, has stated that she would overturn substantially all federal environmental, child labor, workplace safety, and civil rights legislation enacted since 1937. In her view, all laws that restrict people’s freedom of contract – including children’s freedom to choose whether to work in factories, workers’ freedom to choose whether or not to take a job in a factory that keeps all the fire exits locked, and a property owner’s freedom to open a slaughterhouse next door to a hospital – are unconstitutional.
Such ideologues are not just debating the proper balance between the needs of the community and the rights of the individual. Like obsessive firefighters throwing water on every hearth, they oppose all government action in these areas. Their views are outside the mainstream of American thought, and Neoprogressives (both “liberal” and “conservative”) would reject them.
The American way – the Neoprogressive way – could disagree about the best balance while still acknowledging the legitimacy of both the community (acting through democratic government) and the individual (asserting his or her civil liberties and related rights). Neoprogressives, unlike neoconservatives, would agree on the following:
1. We Have Met The Government, And It Is Us.
Unlike totalitarian societies, the community’s needs are actually represented by our democratically-elected government. In other words, the government is not “them”; it’s “us.” When a demagogue states that “government is the problem,” he is stating that we the people are the problem. When a zealot tries to “drown government in the bathtub,” he’s trying to drown community values so that nothing but individual rights are left. That’s un-American.
2. Sometimes It’s OK If the Community Wins.
The needs of the community sometimes come into conflict with the individual’s right to freedom. In those cases, some people recite that we’re a “free country” and insist that the community’s needs step aside. However, that has never been the American system. Sometimes the community’s needs – which are, after all, just the sum total of individual needs – predominate. As long as the community’s decisions are made democratically and critical individual rights are protected, then acting in a way that benefits the community at large is the right thing to do.
3. Democratically Elected Governments May and Should Act Assertively In the Community’s Interest.
Since a democratically-elected government is simply the collective agent of the community, it has tremendous legitimacy and right to act, and should not be shy about doing so. That is why I stated, “government can and should act ... in the community's interest whenever it can do so effectively.”
4. The Proper Place to Restrict Government Power Is Not by De-legitimizing Government Itself, but by Clearly Defining the Limits of its Power as Against the Individual.
I do not favor unlimited government or the “tyranny of the majority.” The needs of the community do not always predominate; individual rights need to be protected. However, the American system of government provides for such protections by establishing limited government and by establishing certain citizen rights, such as the right to free speech, freedom of worship, freedom from unreasonable search, the right to jury trial as a counterweight to the government’s power to prosecute, and the right to fair compensation (determined by a jury) when the community takes an individual’s property for public use. Those rights – and corollary rights like people’s right to decide whether to use birth control or to marry a person of a different race, neither of which is expressly stated in the Constitution but which Progressive judges of both parties, consistent with the Ninth Amendment, have found to be implied by the other rights which are enumerated – should be vigorously defended. But if they are being protected, there is no reason for government to be unnecessarily hampered or restrained.
5. These Propositions Lead Not to a “Liberal” or “Socialist” Society, but to a Healthy Tension and Dialogue among Competing Interests.
Neoprogressivism accepts that neither the community’s interests nor the individual’s rights will always prevail. Rather, there is a proper tension between the need for government to act in order to advance the community’s interests, and the right of individual citizens to possess certain freedoms even when it’s against the majority’s will. Neoprogressives reject Norquist’s and Brown’s view, that government is inherently bad, just as strongly as they reject Mao’s and Stalin’s view, that government is inherently good. It’s a false dichotomy, and citizens shouldn’t fall for it.
6. The Neoprogressive Model, and the American Experiment Itself, Depend Absolutely on the Integrity of the Democratic Process.
Neoprogressivism’s wholehearted support for government action depends entirely on the legitimacy of that government – which in turn depends on the integrity of the democratic process. To the extent government represents something less than the whole community, its actions lose legitimacy.
For example, many people are upset about the New London case, which allows local governments to condemn private property (paying the owners, however), then giving the property to private developers. But the outcry against such action depends largely on the government’s motivation. Imagine this: the citizens of a community hold a referendum on whether to redevelop a blighted area with shops, housing, and a school and park. The plan is to provide tax incentives and a streamlined permit process, but otherwise to let a private developer, rather than the government, buy the properties and do the redevelopment itself. The referendum passes overwhelmingly. Everything goes swimmingly -- but then the owner of the last, key parcel changes his mind about selling and decides to hold out for an extortionate price, 100 times what his property's actually worth. Would people be incensed if the government condemned that last property, paying the owner the market price? Probably not.
So the concern isn't really with whether the government is allowed to turn condemned property over to a private developer. Rather, the problem is people’s distrust of their government; the scenario people are afraid of is one in which a city council, bolstered by the developer’s campaign contributions, condemns property for a development that’s not in the community’s best interests, forcing their neighbors to move so the developer can make a buck. In that situation, democracy has failed, the government’s action lacks legitimacy, and a Neoprogressive might well fight against the government and for the “holdout” landowner. The greater evil in that situation, however, is not the loss to the individual landowner who is forced to sell and move, but the death of democracy, the loss of the people’s government’s legitimacy and their faith in it.
Since Neoprogressivism seeks to re-legitimize the concept of government action to benefit the community, and since government has no legitimacy at all unless it truly represents the will of the community, Neoprogressives should work vigorously to foster true democracy by supporting campaign finance reform, demanding transparency and accountability in our voting technology, supporting a Constitutional right to vote (believe it or not, there is none at present!), removing as many barriers to voting as possible, seeking to overturn the Supreme Court cases equating corporate campaign contributions with protected free speech, and opposing judicial intervention in electoral outcomes. Ideally, Neoprogressives would work to enact public election financing: the cost would be pennies on the dollar compared to the boondoggles and earmarks we taxpayers currently pay for, and the phenomenon of every voter having more power than any corporation would drastically restructure, and improve, our government and our society.
7. Within the Neoprogressive Framework, There Is Plenty of Room for Debate and Dialogue.
The proposition that government, like fire, is generally a good thing, and should not be shy about acting in the public interest, does not mean that traditional liberalism “wins.” The question of what actually is “the community’s best interest” will always be hotly debated. Conservative Neoprogressives will argue for smaller government and lower taxes; liberal Neoprogressives will support more expansive programs and consider higher taxes a reasonable price to obtain them. NeoProgressivism asserts that democratic governments are generally good, not merely necessary evils, and therefore may legitimately and without embarrassment act in the community interest. But it does not say how far the balance should tip.
If anything, acknowledging the legitimacy of government action should enliven the debate over the proper role of government, and could help break up some political logjams. For example, all Neoprogressives, no matter their stance on abortion rights, could agree that the federal government has the power to take measures to reduce unwanted pregnancies, promote adoption, and reduce abortions by non-coercive means. So-called “conservatives” like Grover Norquist and Janet Rogers Brown, if they remain true to their theory of government, would consider such steps to be beyond the federal government’s power.
7. What Government Does, It Should Do Well – Which Imposes Obligations On We Citizens To Help It Do So.
We can debate what it is we want our government to do, but we should all agree that what it does, it should do well.
This seems like a facile proposition, but it has important ramifications. There is a direct connection between a government’s ideology and its effectiveness. When the government is run by people who ideologically are opposed to government action and who doubt the government’s ability to act competently, then any action it does take will be slow, hesitant, incomplete and inadequate. Hurricane Katrina showed this kind of government at its worst. There is a direct connection between the ideology that wants to suppress the federal government in favor of states rights and personal responsibility, and Michael Brown’s Congressional testimony blaming Louisiana and its citizens for the failures of FEMA.
We should have made up our minds. If FEMA was not going to act, it should have said so early and loudly, so that the states and their citizens knew what to expect. If FEMA was going to act, it should have done so rapidly and effectively. The tepid compromise that actually occurred cost lives, hurt our nation’s morale, and undermined our faith in our government – which means it undermined our faith in ourselves. The Neoprogressive assertion that there are proper times and places for government involvement in the civil affairs of our nation carries with it the assertion that, when the government acts, it should do so boldly and well. A Neoprogressive FEMA would have stepped up to the plate and gotten the job done.
However, our expectation that our government work well obligates we citizens to help it do so. First, we must insist that government agencies be staffed by people who believe in the mission of those agencies, not (as is often the case) by people who, prior to taking office, lobbied against the very agencies they now head. There is no place, in a Neoprogressive nation, for a Michael Brown, overseeing the hobbling of FEMA, or a John Bolton, recess-appointed ambassador to an organization he believes should not even exist. Effective government cannot be accomplished by people who question the legitimacy of the very agencies we citizens have hired them to administer.
Practically, this means that we must continually lobby our President to appoint competent and committed administrators, and we must support the right and obligation of the Senate to exercise oversight over Presidential appointees. As James Madison made clear, the Senate’s right of advice and consent and the minority’s right of filibuster exist, not to frustrate the President’s right to choose his executives, or to allow the minority party to unfairly advance an ideology that failed at the polls, but to shine sufficient light on the President’s choices that he will be embarrassed to appoint anyone who is not competent and committed to the task. Neoprogressives should refuse to be drawn into debates over party ideology in executive agency appointments, but focus on competency. We should make ourselves aware of these obscure appointments, and write our editors and Senators to register our opinions about them. We should act like employers conducting a job interview -- which is what we are.
Second: if we ask our government to undertake a job, we should give it the tools to accomplish that job. No National Guardsman should have been deployed to Iraq with Vietnam-era body armor. No teacher should have to buy classroom supplies from her own paycheck. To ask government to act, then inadequately fund it, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that government is incompetent. It betrays our citizens, it betrays the soldiers, sailors, teachers, and others who work on our behalf, and it betrays our integrity.
8. Under a Neoprogressive Framework, the Size of Government Will Not Be Limited by Ideological Debates or Sneak Attacks, but by the People’s Will (And Willingness to Pay).
In calling for the re-legitimization of government action, I am not calling for free-spending liberalism, but mature, mutual accountability. I expect my daughters to get good grades. But along with that expectation comes my responsibility to provide them with adequate nutrition, a quiet place to study, a good desk lamp, and adequate school supplies. Similarly, when we empower government to act and demand that it act competently, we also incur the responsibility to provide funding adequate to enable it to meet those expectations. Neither side of the equation can be omitted.
Anti-tax advocates simultaneously try to starve the government then blame it for its weakness. Libertarians and anarchists want no government and no taxes. Seventies liberals and the current President and Congress alike funded ever-larger government with ever-increasing debt. A Neoprogressive nation, on the other hand, would vigorously debate the desirability, costs and benefits of different government functions, but when that debate was over (at least for that budget cycle), we would clearly identify the functions we expect our government to accomplish, fully fund those programs, and (barring exceptional circumstances like a global depression or world war) pay for those programs from current revenue, even if that meant eliminating other programs, revoking tax cuts, or raising new taxes. Neoprogressives would insist that America grow up – that it be willing to pay for the services it demands, and pay from current revenue, not on our children’s charge card.
Again, “conservative” and “liberal” Neoprogressives will debate how much government there should be, and what level of taxes are tolerable or healthy, but we all would agree to adequately fund every function we ask our government to perform, and we all would acknowledge that the taxes we pay to fund those functions are a fair and reasonable price for living in a civil society.