Blog #20 – The Debates: Principles or Details?
Instead of clichés that are remarkably similar on both sides (who doesn’t love the middle class, or promise to reduce the deficit?), how about going back to basics? Sometimes the devil is in the principles.
1. The role of government: Government is not “them,” as in “keep their hands out of our pockets”), it’s “us.” In a democracy, it’s what we are collectively, not what strange entity is. It’s the “we the people” of the constitution. Whether it’s “big” or “little” isn’t the point; the point is, case by case, should we do it together, or should we do it separately.
What should government do? Is it what we do collectively together because no one person can individually pay for its being done, it can’t efficiently be done for just one person, or you can’t do it for some and not for others. Is it ensure the provisions of what economists speak of as “public goods,” or “collective consumption,” of items such as fresh air, knowledge, lighthouses, national defense, flood control systems, or, locally, police and fire protection, street lighting.
Or is it what are called merit goods: goods (or services) which everyone is better off if everyone has them, such as inoculations against contagious diseases, a good education, a healthy diet, prohibitions against racism, where everyone is better off if more have them?
And if not these things, then what? A basic question.
2. Caring for others: Do we only care for others if they live up to our standards of conduct, so we ourselves will be more secure, or to teach those we don’t help a lesson? Is inequality only bad because it interferes with growth; would we still care about injustice to others if it improved growth? Should we only care for others if we can do so without raising taxes?
Or is our society rich enough so that we can afford to help all those who need help, because all are human beings and “created equal,” regardless of the source of their need?
And if not, where do we draw the line? Another basic question
3. Is winning all? Is the most important purpose of the current election campaign to defeat the other side, as Mitch McConnell explicitly said, and must therefore every speech, every debate answer, every platform paragraph, be written to first serve that most important goal?
Is the holding of a quadrennial election under today’s conditions the single most important definition of our democracy, and should its results pre-empt all further discussion or action to affect policy??
Or is the ultimate purpose of democracy to advance a higher goal, to implement more fully the inalienable right of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with elections every four years being simply one means to that end, others including popular education, illumination of public issues, influencing government policy through other democratic means, pressing the arguments for fundamental principles?
4. The federal deficit: Is reducing the federal deficit a holy grail, so that all budgetary decisions, as to both revenues and expenditures, must be subordinated to it, whether they harm the most vulnerable or the best off, whether they reduce or expand production of goods and services, whether they add to or subtract from security, personal and/or national?
Or are promises to reduce the deficit meaningless, avoiding the real issues, unless they specify what will be cut and/ what taxed and for whom?
Sometimes the devil is indeed in the details.