What today might just be the defining difference among us? Is it that between Barack Obama who said in an email to the public on December 20th that he was not yet done, and all those (and I hear it often in my own family) who say that he’s done too much, and should stop? Is it the difference between Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren, between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton? At the country’s founding it was the difference of views between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
Jefferson was convinced that America’s future prosperity lay in its agrarian tradition and placed his trust in the people (by which he probably meant farmers and landowners). Alexander Hamilton no less convinced was confident that the country’s future hinged on the promotion of manufactures and commerce, and unlike Jefferson he distrusted the will of the people and placed his trust in the banks and the growing power of the federal government.
Perhaps because of their very differences, Washington made these two men his closest advisors, the one secretary of State, and the other secretary of Treasury. Would that today our own leaders could similarly work together and profit from their differences instead of giving us their opposing visions of what should be done, this all too often resulting in doing nothing and a gridlocked Congress.
The differing political views of Jefferson and Hamilton are still very much in evidence, although you might say that their essential difference was in good part settled, if not resolved, when the North and South went to war over the power of the federal government vs the power of, in this case, the Southern States, or in Jefferson’s language, the “people.”
The Hamiltonians of course won the war and from then on the federal government has been on a roll (today no one pays attention to Texas when its leaders on the far Republican Right speak of leaving and breaking up the Union).
A roll because over and over again the people failed to solve the growing nation’s problems by themselves. There were never enough Wyatt Earps to go around, and there still aren’t, and as a result the field was left wide open for the federal government to take more and more of the responsibility for doing much of the nation’s important work, needed work not done by the people themselves.
Freeing the slaves was just how it all began. Neither Thomas Jefferson’s Southern landowners, nor Jefferson himself, a slaver, were ever probably going to do this themselves. And the work of government is still going on, our government doing essential jobs that otherwise would not get done.
(But it may very well be possible that today the government needs to be reigned in for doing too much, for doing jobs that the people could be doing better themselves. Education and healthcare, both government failures, come to mind.)
Today our leaders talk very little with those of opposing views. Why is that? They ought to. Their different points of view ought to be no less prominent in, no less a part of Obama’s government than were the cabinet positions of Jefferson and Hamilton in the government of George Washington.
But not only have the leaders of the country not followed Washington’s example but they have done in spades what they were warned not to do in James Madison’s Federalist, nos. 9 and 10. They have irresponsibly placed themselves in opposing groups or factions –a faction being in Madison’s words, “a number of citizens, … who are united … by some common … passion, or interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to …interests of the community.”
Perhaps the defining difference between us is how we see the role of government. And between the factions there’s a war going on, not a shooting war as between the states or between the native Americans and the settlers, but a verbal media war, almost a war to the death, between far left and far right pundits, the so-called talking heads, for example, of Fox and MSNBC. The people seem to be listening and watching only them, lining themselves up on separate channels behind the ones or the others.
The result is that the factions or parties, instead of working for the good of the nation, a pursuit that seems to have been lost in the loud shouting matches between them, spend their time trying to insure the election, and too often reelection, of their own favorites to elected offices from which they can go on with their major task of keeping their promises, not to the country, but to their own supporters.
The leaders of the parties and of the Congress, that preserve of our elected representatives, speak, not as if there were at least two opposing but legitimate points of view, but as if there were only one, theirs. Not true, of course. There are at least two sides to every issue confronting us, even that of global warming.
On the one hand the view that a large federal government is necessary ought to be granted by everyone. After all much of the necessary work of our nation during the nearly 250 years of our history, too often neglected by the people, has been taken up and done by our elected representatives. Work such as providing a national defense, a national transportation system, insuring that we have clean air and water, insuring safe industrial working conditions, establishing and securing the civil rights of women and minorities, and yes, insuring the health and safety of those without adequate means themselves, and much more.
Is there any doubt that just as a family will provide for those of their own who can’t provide for themselves, so it is appropriate that the government provide for the poor and needy among us. As I say that I ask myself how can it be that I have to write it down. Doesn’t everyone accept that to some degree the people’s welfare has to have a large place in the national budget?
In fact there’s nothing wrong with being a welfare state, as in fact all modern states are. What’s wrong is when that’s all that they are, when states are nothing but welfare states, as some would mislabel France or Sweden. (Both countries are much more than that.)
A more accurate use of the term welfare would be to apply it to wealthy families whose children only take from their own inheritance, and never go to work themselves. Welfare families? One doesn’t hear the talking heads on the right complaining about them.
On the other hand there’s much to be said on the small government, even anti-government side. And just as there’s nothing wrong with a welfare state, there is nothing wrong with wanting to slow the growth of government. We all can agree that much of what we have to do in this life should not be the responsibility of government.
And in fact line between what should be the responsibility of the government and what should be that of the people, of individuals and families and private organizations and businesses of all stripes has never been well drawn. If the right were to make this their goal, to do what is their responsibility, and stop putting down but accepting in many respects the essential role of government in our lives…
In the wild, wild West individuals and families were probably the only law in town. No in our large cities, including those of the no longer wild West individuals and families have to struggle to stay whole and not be swallowed up by government structures and government programs. Of the later the very worst are in my opinion the public schools and the public hospitals. These are, I believe, government’s two greatest failures. Why is that? Well one’s learning as well as one’s health can only thrive and prosper when the learners and patients themselves are making the important decisions for themselves.
The defining difference between us? Is it whether we look most to government or most to ourselves to improve our lot? But this difference need not be as it has often been, and still is for too many, something that keeps us apart. For it’s only a matter of emphasis, how much we emphasize the one or the other, whether we are on the side of big or small government. I for one am for both. The contradiction is only seeming.
At one and the same time government is too big and government is not big enough. Government is too big because it’s spending money it does not have, supporting programs and people it should not support. Government is not big enough, because too many children are left to grow up poor and as a result face daunting obstacles to their social development and physical health, obstacles that often remain with them the rest of their lives.
Still the old question, asked by Vladimir Lenin in 1901, and probably many times earlier, What is to be done? Sto Delat? No easy answer and that’s why we yell at rather than talk with one another. But of course there is an answer, we have only to hear it. The answer is clearly that we have to do both at once, shrink the size of the government and do more for the country and the people, and especially the children, who need help.
I was reminded of that just today, in an email from Barack Obama, in which he says, “I’m not done. I won’t stop fighting for the American people until the day I leave this office. That’s a promise.”