Revising the role of government | Ott Observations

It’s hard to imagine an issue or topic that isn’t divisive today. Supposedly different opinions are grounded in different ideologies, be they conservative, liberal, libertarian or socialistic. 

It feels more random to me, like comets shooting directionless across the sky. It’s hard to see the connection to foundational principles in a world of short texts and sound bites.

I think our issue dialogue would be far more productive if we grounded everything in an understanding of the role of government.

So what is that role? First, our government protects all of us from everyone else in the world. Our Founding Fathers formed our country, in part, with an understanding the states had to stand together militarily against England. This required a national army vs. state militias.

That sounds simple. But since World War II, we lead the defense of not just our country but all democracies in the world. 

It is the basis for our alliances. Collectively they help protect us. In this role we help defend Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and South Korea. We keep military forces around the world to deter aggression from countries intent on war and invasion. 

Our military leaders would tell you we do this to prevent World War III. Either we accept this modern role of our government or we don’t.

Another aspect of this national defense purpose is our control of who gets to come to our country. We are a nation of immigrants. Virtually all of us can trace our ancestry to someone who came here to escape war, persecution or lack of economic opportunity. Offering asylum is still the law of our land. 

Do you accept this practice over the past 250-plus years or not? If so, how do we best do this?

Second, our government protects personal liberties from unnecessary interference of the government. Some of these liberties are spelled out in the Bill of Rights. Again, it sounds easy but how do these abstract ideas of a “right” apply in specific situations? Are destructive lies part of free speech? Does a dangerous person have a right to bear arms?

Our Supreme Court is the ultimate decision-maker of such questions. I have been very critical of our current court for two reasons. One is that they have deferred key questions to each state to decide, access to abortion being one such issue. Either you have a right as an American or you don’t. It shouldn’t matter where you live.

The Supreme Court has also been very literal about rights, not recognizing them unless they are specified in the Constitution. This judicial philosophy actually contradicts the Ninth Amendment, which says that specifying rights in the Constitution does not deny or disparage other rights retained by the people.

A third role of government is to protect us from each other. Again, this seems simple when you consider basic law and order. Less clear is how this responsibility of government applies when some of us want to ban books, deny same sex marriage or prohibit vices such as drugs or prostitution.

 Who gets to say what the rest of us can and cannot do? Can you make a profit by polluting my environment?

In my opinion, a fourth role of government is to ensure human rights. People have a right to food, shelter, education and healthcare. These critical elements of life are not just for those who can afford them. They are “pro life.” 

This is a moral foundation for our government and a belief common across religions. Yet we argue about whether we can afford “entitlement” programs or whether we are encouraging socialism if we help those who have failed the economic competition of capitalism.

If we accept this role of government, our discussion should be how we satisfy human rights vs. if we satisfy them.

Whatever you decide the government is supposed to do, the government needs to pay for it. 

Governments create taxes to do what we expect them to do. An opposition to a tax needs to be grounded in a belief that the government is operating outside its role. If you don’t think we have a responsibility to help our aged, then you oppose Social Security and we don’t need that tax. Or maybe you have a better idea how to help the aged, but it will still require money. 

Capitalism doesn’t care if the aged have a means to live.

Democratic governments aren’t supposed to run the economy. Anyone running for office that tells you they can instantly fix inflation, raise wages or lower your gas prices isn’t being honest. Governments can help businesses, provide incentives and try to stimulate the economy, but market forces mostly determine supply, demand and costs. 

Governments also need to regulate business so people aren’t cheating.

Every issue starts with the question, “Is this part of the role of government?” 

If not, we’re done talking. If so, then we need to discuss how to best go about meeting this responsibility. 

Listen closely in the debates and speeches of the upcoming national election. Do you hear candidates saying, “This is our job and here is my idea how to do it.” Or do you hear them appealing to the passions and pet issues of their tribe without specifying their position on the responsibilities of government.

Who do you want to send to Washington?

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Bill Ott

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