Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why rugged individualism is not enough: The case for government and regulation


James Madison

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

- James Madison (1751-1836), Fourth President of the United States
From The Federalist [1777]

Ah, there's the rub!  Human beings are not angels and, therefore, government is necessary in an imperfect world.   Government doesn't have to be oppressive and unduly intrusive.  It just has to be there when needed.  It has to be there in times of emergency.  It has to be there to prevent human selfishness and greed from running rampant.  It has to provide a balance against those who put profit ahead of all else, those who would put the lives and health of others at risk in order to make inordinate amounts of money.  Good government protects the welfare and safety of the people from the excesses of unfettered capitalism. 

Americans value rugged individualism.  It is their grand perception of the American dream.  It's the John Wayne mentality.  It's the cowboy creed and it is not without merit.  Self-reliance is an admirable quality and should be encouraged.  Those of the extreme right-wing persuasion, however, advocate individualism to the exclusion of almost everything else.  This is a flawed vision of society, a flawed vision of a nation.  There can be no liberty and justice for all without a sense of community.  As the poet John Donne so eloquently put it:  "No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."

Community and individuality are not mutually exclusive.  We are not faced with an either/or choice. Individual initiative and individual responsibility can and do flourish within strong communal bonds.  Ronald Reagan was wrong when he said that government is part of the problem, not the solution.  Government can and should be looked upon as a force for good and not as the enemy.  Just as we should not suppress the human spirit and the need for every human being to have individual freedom, neither should we suppress the human capacity to work together as one in order to solve problems and to assist each other.

A society of conforming robots is not desirable, but neither is a society of great inequity where those in need are trampled on and left behind.  It is sad and reprehensible that in developed nations such as Canada and the United States children go to sleep hungry and people live in abject poverty.  We cannot just shake our heads and say it's too bad that those unfortunates cannot keep up with the survival of the fittest.  Nor can we shrug self-righteously and dismiss the poor and disadvantaged as lazy and unmotivated.

On September 8, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed Congress to provide details of his proposed American Jobs Act.  I have provided an excerpt from Obama's speech because I believe the words ring true.  They set forth the case for the necessity of government regulation and spending - not excessive and irresponsible spending, but necessary spending.


We should have no more regulation than the health, safety and security of the American people requires.  Every rule should meet that common standard.  But what we can't do, what I will not do, is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades.  I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety.  I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients.  I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy.  We shouldn't be in a race to the bottom where we try to offer the cheapest labour and the worst pollution standards.  We should be in a race to the top.  And I believe we can win that race.  In fact, this larger notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is to dismantle government and refund everyone's money and let everyone write their own rules and tell everyone they're on their own, it's not who we are!  It's not the story of America.  Yes, we are rugged individuals.  Yes, we are strong and self-reliant.  And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and the envy of the world.  But there has always been another thread running throughout our history: A belief that we're all connected and that there are some things we can only do together as a nation.  We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union, founder of the Republican Party.  But in the middle of a civil war, he was also a leader who looked to the future, a Republican president who mobilized government to build the transcontinental railroad, launch the National Academy of Sciences, set up the first land grant colleges.  And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set.  Ask yourself, where would we be right now if the people who sat before us decided not to build our highways, not to build our bridges, our dams, our airports?  What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, on research universities or community colleges?  Millions of returning heroes, including my own grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the GI Bill.  Where would we be if they hadn't had that chance?  How many jobs would it have cost us if past Congresses decided not to support the basic research that led to the Internet and the computer chip?  What kind of country would this be if this chamber voted down social security because it violated some rigid idea about what government could or could not do?  How many Americans would have suffered as a result.  No single individual built America alone.  We built it together.


What has happened to moderate conservatives?  Are they around anymore in Canada and the United States?  Have they gone the way of the dinosaur?  If not, why aren't their voices being heard?  Why don't they speak up?  Why have they allowed the Tea Party types to dominate the political agenda?

Here in Canada, those of the conservative stripe used to be more moderate and reasonable.  We used to have a Progressive Conservative Party.  Now it's the Conservative Party.  As for Red Tories. they are no where to be seen or heard.  Where once we had John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark, we now have Stephen Harper.  What a shame!

- Joanne

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