Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Public vs. Private

According to Mark Hyman’s latest editorial, government should get out of “private affairs” like building a hotel and convention center. Apparently, Hyman thinks government should stick to areas it belongs, like deciding who should get to marry whom and keeping track of what library books you check out.

Hyman makes the blanket charge that local governments are involved in a “headlong rush” into private affairs. The specific evidence he offers is scant: a proposal for the city of Baltimore to build a city-owned hotel for conventions and anti-smoking ordinances in New Jersey. However, he alludes to situations such as the case recently before the Supreme Court about the right of local governments to assume ownership of private land for civic projects.

Reasonable people can certainly disagree on this issue (critics of this eminent domain policy come from both the left and the right, as do supporters). The problem is that Hyman makes a blanket statement that government shouldn’t be involved in “private affairs.”

But of course there are plenty of ways the government intervenes in private affairs in ways folks like Hyman approve of. In addition to issues of regulating marriage and carrying out surveillance on the general population, the government offers huge subsidies to any number of industries, including energy, agriculture, and manufacturing. In fact, it’s an oft-cited truism that the “reddest” states (particularly those in the West) are also those who receive the most largesse from the federal government. But if government shouldn’t be passing ordinances on smoking in private places, shouldn’t it also get out of the subsidy business? Shouldn’t the “free market” be allowed to work wonders with its invisible hand?

What Hyman means, of course, is that he feels governmental agencies should butt out of some private issues, but not others. And that’s fine. I would just point out that other people disagree on which issues are private and which are public. And moreover, it is the people who vote on and make up the government.

Hyman says that “certain activities are thought of as the responsibility of government,” while others are not. But if Hyman’s philosophy on what government should and shouldn’t do is based simply on what is accepted as conventional wisdom, he must acknowledge that conventional wisdom can change. The government shouldn’t rush headlong into certain affairs considered private? Well, why not? Shouldn’t the people get to decide what to do through government and what not to do? Obviously, this only holds true up to a point (specifically, the test of Constitutionality), but if it is the will of the people to use government to attain a particular common good, why should this be disallowed?

This is particularly true of local governments, the specific target of Hyman’s critique. After all, it’s usually conservatives who remind us that local governments are the most responsive and efficient tools when it comes to serving the public good. Isn’t it the people themselves (as opposed to Mark Hyman) who should define the role that their own local government plays in their lives?

Lurking behind Hyman’s commentary is the standard conservative worldview when it comes to representative democracy: while we pay lip service to the wonders of the democratic process and government by, of, and for the people, government is really a separate, alien entity that is unconnected to the citizenry. This is the attitude that shows itself anytime an elected official or government employee is referred to as a mere “bureaucrat.”

There are times when this attitude is a tempting one to adopt (standing in line at the DMV or wrestling with IRS forms, for example), but it’s a dangerous one for a democracy. Democracy works only if we put our faith in it—if we accept the language of the likes of Jefferson, Madison, Paine, and Lincoln as not simply dandified ways of saying democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest, but as describing the actual way in which democracy works.

This is not always easy, nor does it mean that more government is better or that the decision of the people at any given time is necessarily the right one. But it means believing that government is what we the people make of it rather than a monolithic Other that exists independently of the citizenry. This requires a leap of faith, but it’s a leap that citizens of a democracy can afford not to make if they wish to ensure their continued freedom.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.72


At 11:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ted, I can remember, and I'm sure you can too, when these Faux-Conservative Republicans were all about getting Big-Government out of our personal lives. Since they have siezed and maintained control of our government by fraudulent means over the last five years, loss of personal liberties and intrusion of government into our lives has increased a hundred-fold. I must agree completely with the following quote from the Portland Oregonian:
"Other than telling us how to live, work, think, marry, pray, vote, invest, educate our children and, now, die, I think the Republicans have done a fine job of getting government out of our personal lives."
Thanks Ted, and keep bustin' Hyman!
Mike B. in SC


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