On the national level there is a great and divisive set of debates going on in our country about not just the role government should play but about some of the fundamental values of our society. This plays out on the local level to some extent but compassion and a desire to actually accomplish something usually wins the day (thankfully).
Nationally, the debates I see are summed up as individualism vs collectivism, laissez-faire capitalism vs a mixed economy or social-market economy (calling this socialism is both laughable and completely untrue), some form of makers vs takers or self reliance vs entitlement, and finally the role of government in our lives.
All of these debates are related and some of them are just strawmen for a broader ethical discussions on the class/cast system in America. These debates though are truly adversarial. If one side believes strongly in either extreme, they are nearly mutually exclusive in nature. Thankfully, most of us fall somewhere in the middle. That said, with an increasingly polarized electorate and party system, these debates are becoming harder and harder to have. This is leading to greater uncertainty as to the track of things to come.
Individual vs Collective
I like this debate. I like both sides for different reasons. There are many areas where the government should just get out of our personal lives. Namely, in areas where it doesn’t hurt or affect anyone else. Allowing individuals to live and let live is a key element to having a free society.
But broadening this to say that somehow we are not interconnected is insane. We live in a world of specialists. There is almost no one in our country that is entirely self sufficient or would want to be. It makes far more sense to develop a skill or learn a trade and use currency to get the things you don’t have the skills or natural resources for. Thus, we are all dependent on each other by the very nature of our system.
Because of that, if we improve the lives of a large enough portion of the population, we will all reap the benefits. Helping people get out of poverty or increasing upward mobility allows a greater number of people to solve their own problems or be the next major innovators or future workforce. Due to our massively interconnected society creating a strong and dare I say liberal, social contract only serves to help all of us. By creating and using a pool of common resources, we bring stability to all of us.
Laissez-faire capitalism vs a mixed economy
As mentioned before, it would be laughable to call this argument capitalism vs socialism. Both our major parties are controlled by corporate interests and to declare otherwise is not accurate. My concern with a strictly capitalist run system (including most if not all government functions) is that they are beholden to no one but the market and their own profits.
We need rules to play by. Being a capitalist or business person does not make you morally superior. You are still just as likely as any other citizen (and in fact monetarily incentivized in some cases) to lie, cheat, abuse, manipulate and steal your way to success. It happens all the time. The government needs to set the rules to protect consumers, workers and our natural resources from exploitation and abuse. These rules should be smart and solve a problem and we do need them.
The argument of makers vs takers
If only we had less people sucking from the system, all our problems would be solved. If we did not have so many people on the government dole, we would be able to balance our budgets and not run deficits. This has been a popular argument in recent political cycles. I find this drastically over simplifies some serious issues that relate to the stability of our union.
The three areas of greatest concern are: 1) the distribution of wealth in America, 2) Access to medical care and 3) Equality of opportunity - the idea that no matter where you are born in America, you should have a decent shot at the American dream.
My first thought when I hear this is that the “makers” clearly have no idea what it is like to be a “taker.” Our “takers” in America, so we can put a face to them, are our veterans, our seniors, our disabled, our poor and our children. Some of these people have paid into our systems, some of them cannot, some of them have paid in other ways, and of course, some are abusing the system. These people are not so different than you or I or any other “maker”, they just got dealt a different set of cards.
The bottom line is that when having this conversation, we need to look not at this argument of who makes and who takes, but at the three points I made above. We need to understand how wealth is distributed and how more than 50% of this country has none. We need to look at how wealth is largely a product of birth and little else. We need to understand that while a hospital is legally required to provide treatment to an injury or illness, this is not the same as having access to medical care and preventative medicine. That requiring each of us to pay into the pot of insurance also makes us more accountable to each other and helps more of those that need it so desperately. Lastly, the great allure of the American dream is that it is achievable by all of us. We should not strive to make it a dream that only people with huge structural advantages or good genetics can achieve. We need opportunities to be at all levels of the spectrum so even people who might not start out with every advantage can be given the tools to reach their potential.
Role of Government
I believe that civil society needs public goods. Goods where all of us contribute some portion of our production to a pool of shared resources. National defense, maintenance of our legal system, infrastructure projects and education are some areas I think most of us agree we need to have. We certainly will not agree completely on the various priorities, but I believe that if they can be well managed and achieve desirable results, we would feel better about how our shared contribution is being spent.
My concerns with complete privatization of goods and services are that while you might gain in efficiency and quality, you will also leave behind those that do not (or cannot) pay as much in taxes or those who do not work in the influential circles. Another concern is accountability. If many previously public goods are now privately managed, how do the people hold anyone accountable? Corporations are not elected. While we could de-fund them (or hire someone new), once the programs are in place, it is very hard to undo it. Elected officials are beholden to the people. At any point, in any election, we can vote them out. This is a powerful tool for change and should keep our political system loyal to the people.
Where do we go from here?
Our world is becoming increasingly complex. There are no easy answers to many of our problems and adjustments to our system often have a myriad of unintended consequences. What I can say for sure is that we must stop the culture of weighing opinions over facts and misinformation or misrepresentation in place of objective truth. There are many outcomes we can accurately predict and many areas where we see the consequences of our actions but confuse ourselves by saying otherwise. This has to stop.
Whether we like it or not, America is a melting pot of ideas, cultures, and histories. We must strive to be a culture that values our diversity not fears it. We all come from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds as well as different ability levels, personal health, and luck. I would urge people to judge less, listen more and realize that not everyone processes things the same way or for the same reason. People make mistakes and there will always be inequities in any system. If we strive to focus on the facts of the situation, temper it with compassion and work as hard as we are able each day to make a better world, I doubt there are any problems we cannot overcome if we can find a way to work together.