The recent bitter, divisive battle in Washington over raising the debt ceiling, subject to massive cuts in government spending, highlighted our very disparate ways of understanding the role of government. For Democrats in general and progressive thinking people in particular, the government must appropriately address the collective needs of ALL of its citizens. For most conservative Republicans, the government exists to protect the rights and freedoms of the individual and provide for the national defense.
Many of us who make time to recite Shacharit, the traditional Jewish morning service, daily intone passages from Torah and Talmud that demand that Jews remember their obligations to those in need, and pursue justice for both our kinsmen and the “strangers” among us.
Judaism’s emphasis on justice and social responsibility have surely influenced Jewish political loyalties. In America, Jews usually support the Democratic Party, which has long championed social justice.
That’s not to say there are no Jewish people who share the values and political vision of the Republican Party. Surely it is possible to subscribe to Judaism’s demands for social justice, but not believe that the government is best agent for addressing human needs.
A valued, learned conservative minded friend recently shared with me an article written by Rabbi Daniel Schiff, “Alleviating Poverty – A Halakhic View of Social Security within the Modern Welfare State.” In it, Rabbi Schiff eloquently points out that throughout history, Jewish communities have effectively addressed the needs of the needy through grassroots programs. According to Rabbi Schiff, using the government to redistribute wealth through social support programs that often create dependency, are not in keeping with Jewish demands to assist people in need.
Of course Judaism does not want people to become dependent on assistance whether it be from the government or private sources. But the fact that such dependence may develop among some of the people who utilize government programs does not expunge the good such assistance provides to many. And can the private sector really address the social needs of the community without government support? Ask the operators of Jewish nursing homes around the country this week how they envision maintaining their facilities in light of drastic pending cuts in government support, and they will tell you that they are either going to have radically reduce services or simply close their doors.
Some years ago, I heard former Vice President Al Gore offer the following humorous, but telling parable about how a conservative and a liberal might respond to the same crisis: A man is drowning 100 feet from the shoreline. A conservative comes along and throws him a 75 foot long rope and exclaims, “swim the other 25 feet, it will be good for your character!” If a liberal came along and saw a person drowning 100 feet from the shore, he would throw him a 125 foot long rope, drop his end and walk away.
The allegory highlights legitimate criticisms the two philosophies have about each other: Some conservatives seem unwilling or unable to recognize the social problems they believe can and should be resolved by the individual. And if the government is to get involved, its engagement should be minimal and temporary. On the other hand, government programs often prove to be wasteful and in inefficient.
But what if that person really cannot swim the 25 feet?
Some years ago, as a volunteer social worker in a juvenile detention center, it became clear to me that many if not most of the incarcerated youngsters didn’t have a clue about the role of laws and government in a free society. Many, if not all would respond to question, “why are you here?” by saying, “I got caught.” Few if any acknowledged breaking a law, making a mistake, showing an error in judgement.
I decided to see if I could teach Intro to Basic Civics through some creative group work. The youngsters were asked to imagine themselves settling a brand new town in a remote corner of the world where there was no existing police or government. Over a period of days, I was able to get the kids arguing with one another about the “rules” that would govern their new imaginary town. Suddenly, the kid who had been repeatedly arrested for shoplifting was arguing for rules that prohibited people from taking personal property from one another; a drug dealer wanted to be on the fictional town council; a hot-tempered kid who had been incarcerated for assaulting a teacher was passionate in arguing that the town sheriff should not be appointed by the town council by a vote of all the citizens.
In time, these troubled kids came to appreciate that government is not in the business of hassling citizens, it’s about protecting rights and freedom. The anti-government rhetoric we hear everyday America raises the question, how many Americans understand basic civics themselves?
What you do in your home or in your business is your business, until you do something that challenges the rights and lifestyle of other; then it becomes everyone’s business. And that simple definition most certainly must apply to businesses that might, intentionally or not, harm our collective environment and our individual health. Does anyone seriously not want government guidelines for water and air pollution? Does anyone really think we can do without government agencies that ensure that our food and tap-water supplies are healthy? Our most recent recession was the result of unregulated financial institutions showing unbridled greed in selling bad loans and mortgages. Shouldn’t the government be protecting the national economy from such irresponsible avarice?
Recently, as I was debating the unjust nature of the American healthcare system with a proud conservative who identified himself as a member of the “Tea Party.” He reminded me that, “Never were wiser words spoken than those of President Reagan when he said: ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
I responded that “never were there more unpatriotic words spoken by an American President.” There’s something incredibly ironic about celebrating politicians who bad mouth the very government they are or were responsible for managing.
Do you think President Reagan’s degrading remarks about government employees applied to the men and women serving in the military? Of course not! But an expose on welfare moms releases the government from its obligation to help the poor. Why is national defense a sacred cow and human assistance programs a waste of money? Kill programs that aid the poor, but don’t you dare cut off Medicare and Social Security for middle class people!
147 years ago, another eloquent Republican expressed the hope that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The political soap box of anti-government rhetoric would be unconscionable to Abraham Lincoln, and should be to us as well.
No, we don’t want a government that wastes money or creates dependency. But we should still want and demand, an efficient, cost-effective government that cares and can effectively respond to the needs of its citizens.
“But the government is not living within its means! Government spending is going to bankrupt this country! Our children and grandchildren will be paying off our debts!”
The eight years that Bill Clinton served as President proved that an efficient government inevitably flourishes in prosperous times. So what do we do in a recession? Americans should listen carefully to Nobel Laureate in Economics Paul Krugman who reminds us continually that the government is actually the economic engine of the nation. Limiting the government’s capacity to infuse the economy with money during a recession is like taking food away from a person suffering from malnutrition. So why has the unemployment rate stayed at 9%+ in recent years when we were supposed to be coming out of the recession? The overwhelming majority of American jobs that have been lost were public sector jobs.
If asked, do you think the politicians who have signed the “no new taxes pledge” and who are now advocating for a balanced budget amendment, would agre to live within their personal means and never, ever again take out a mortgage, auto, business or personal bank loans for any purpose?
The road to freedom, prosperity and justice in this country will not be paved in the fear and cynicism of those who would sooner damn THE PEOPLES GOVERNMENT then take responsibility for making it work efficiently and successfully on behalf of its citizens.