Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Representing All Americans

A unfortunate tenet on the left and on some segments of the right, is to accept that the government can justly represent just a small slice of the electorate; one's supporters, or base, interest groups, and political allies. But the reality is that for there to be any true level of justice in our political system, our leaders must truly represent all Americans. They must design policies and laws with this fundamental principle at the forefront of their minds; because, while as a political system we believe in majority rule, we also have a strong commitment to minority rights. No in-group or out-group should be offered special privileges or unfair treatment. Every American should be treated equally under the law.

It seems like a relatively simple principle when stated in a succinct manner, yet unfortunately it is frequently and readily ignored by America's politicians. It is a staple of the Obama administration's political ideology. For those on the left it is more than simply appealing to their base or providing pork to associated special interests, but a deeply enmeshed belief that the government has a responsibility to treat individuals differently in certain circumstances. Government, from this perspective, serves to ensure specific outcomes, or at least push the outcome in the desired direction. Explicitly, it accepts the notion that a just government should focus on the end result, aiming to create some arbitrary notion of equality—an impossible and unjust task.

When Obama lauds his success, as he recently did at a United Auto Workers' conference, of "saving" the auto industry, this ideology is displayed in its most unflattering light. If one was the chairman (or czar) of the auto industry, he would surely applaud the preservation of his interests. An individual, in the role of autoworker or auto company owner, may be ecstatic at receiving special dispensation, tacitly ignoring both those that paid for their rescue and those who were not rescued. But receiving such perks of money, influence, or connection, however historically common it may be, does not make it the proper way our system should be run.

However the argument here is not about the economic efficacy of such policies—there are plenty of economic rejoinders that would challenge those that tout such bailouts as fiscally sane, which can be addressed elsewhere.[1] What is at question is the ideology that the government has the right to treat one group differently than another. These type of policies support the incorrect belief that the government can (justly) protect or injure certain segments of society using arbitrary criteria (and yes, regardless of how logical such criteria may be to one or another, they are arbitrary when they discriminate between different individuals). 

The problem, to be fair, is not singularly one of the left, but also unfortunately present on the right. When Rick Santorum stands on the podium arguing for special treatment for manufacturers through tax incentives, he concedes reliance on the same backward philosophy. When congressmen from agricultural red states fight for special subsidies to farmers, they too erode the just role of government. When oilmen or bankers (or union-members) are given carve-outs, the same philosophy is at work.

This is an issue that goes beyond the charges, often correctly made, of "picking winners and losers," which is certainly problematic. The problem is the vision of government that does not consider all Americans as equal before the law. That is an ideology that, for whatever electoral or political reasons, believes that a politician can treat different Americans in different ways. 

While the political roots of this problem are understandable, the long-term consequences are potentially disastrous. Our system has moved a long way from its foundations, where the government was supposed to serve as an impartial arbitrator, as an entity that facilitated the common space but did not try to fill that space, to a near feudal model of patronage and special privileges. The system, historically speaking, may never have worked as philosophically as it strove to—there are certainly too many examples of its failure—but historically (or maybe its simply an effect of rose-tinted lenses) the philosophy seems to have greater popular currency. Today, it appears to be rarely thought of or discussed. 

American politicians need to strive to represent all Americans and the electorate should hold them to that standard. If the people eschew demands for special treatment, the politicians will have to change their electoral strategy. If privilege to the few at the expense of the many becomes anathema in the American political system (right now it is only anathema if the "few" are not you), it will help rebirth the idea that the government needs to represent all Americans, providing a system that is nimble, light, and does not impede the individual. The alternative is a bloated, heavy, and cumbersome system (daresay European) that struggles under the weight of entitlements and carve-outs. The latter is a system that not only veers away from the correct formulation of a just government but will crush the unique spirit that has made America great.

[1]Did an investment in the auto industry reap the best return for the government's investment when compared to other options? Could that money have been used to create or save even more jobs in other sectors or been better used by the taxpayers? Is having a large auto industry really in the best long-term interest of our economy? Would it have been smarter to facilitate structural changes in the economy rather than prop up a failing industry? Certainly, demonstrating that the auto industry is alive today and that jobs have been "saved" in isolation, as proponents are wont to do, does little to answer if the bailout was a smart financial decision.

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