Friday, January 14, 2005

Conceptions of Government

Jimmy is a frequent commenter on this blog and I have had several valuable conversations with him. He is a principled conservative who argues his points rationally without invective. I don't always agree with him, but I respect him.

In the comments to this post, Jimmy made some interesting comments that I think get to the heart of the difference between conservative and liberal conceptions of government. I'd like to reproduce this conversation here and comment on it further.


When the government runs out of money, who will uphold that guarantee? The answer is all of us. So the current scheme guarantees that we will have to make up the shortfall with additional taxes. Guaranteed.


Jimmy, you seem to come from the perspective that all taxes are inherently bad. I see taxes as a necessary component of good citizenship. I don't see them as the government stealing money from me. Hell, I don't really consider my tax money to have ever really been mine in the first place.

Paying taxes is patriotic. Once you accept that notion than the idea that we might have to pay some additional taxes to meet the obligations of Social Security just doesn't seem like that big a deal to me. We pay taxes for many other things the government does that people never question (military, cops, firefighters, etc.) I see Social Security as just another element of the social safety net that government provides so I don't object to paying taxes for it.


While I won't go so far as to say that paying taxes is patriotic, I will allow that it is at least a measure of good citizenship to do so. Taxes are not inherently bad. But, it is also a measure of good citizenship to question how that tax money is spent. It is irresponsible for us to sweep this problem under the rug for others to deal with when the problem truly becomes large instead of the smaller problem we face if we start paying/cutting/whatever incrementally now.

To clarify one further point, what I meant by "when the government runs out of money" was when the social security "trust fund" isn't enough to cover what's being paid out to retirees. So the government isn't broke it's just got to come up with money to pay those benefits. We can wait until then and have our taxes jacked all at once or we can do something about it now.

In closing, the tax money I fork over is most definitely mine. I pay the goverment to do stuff for me and my fellow citizens. For the most part, I'm OK with it (forget the coercion part for now, I'll leave that little libertarian streak in me lie). But it's definitely my money.


I don't pay tax money in order for the government to do stuff for me. I'm not buying a service from the government. The government is not a business with a product that I, as a consumer, am buying.

The government is me. The government is you. The government is all of us.

I work a certain percentage of my time in order to earn the money necessary to maintain the level of government services I believe to be necessary to "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty." I am doing my part by my labor to defend those principles.

This is where I suspect the heart of the difference lies.

Jimmy seems to see government as just another provider of services and products in a market based economy. I see the government as the manifestation of the will of the people to do all those things that the founders envisioned in the preamble to the Constitution.

Jimmy seems to see the government as a business that he is forced to do business with by paying taxes for certain services that he doesn't want. I see the government as a community concern to which I contribute a measure of my blood, sweat and tears.

Jimmy seems to resent it when he has to buy something he doesn't like from the government. I consider it part of the shared burden of having to live together in a confined space with limited resources where I will not always get my way but, hopefully, through my efforts, I can better the lives of myself and my loved ones.

If your conception is "Government as Business" then it would be perfectly logical to come to the conclusion that government is coercive. If your conception is "Government as The People" then it would be perfectly logical to the conclusion that government is beneficial.

This is the divide between conservatives and liberals.

Neither conception is inherently right or wrong. Both conceptions have their merits. Both can lead to pathological extremes ("Government as Business" => Fascism. "Government as The People" => Communism). I am convinced that it is when these conceptions "check and balance" each other that our society functions the best for all involved. It is when one conception comes to dominate the political operation of the country that things begin to fall apart.

As I said, Jimmy really does help me think about these things.



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