Read part 1 of this blog post here.
What is Government Supposed to Do?
It’s been generally established that a great majority of the American public who are eligible to vote fail to exercise that right. As such, these represent well over a 100 million Americans who are apparently content being governed by whoever others (voters) choose.
Those who do exercise their right, privilege, and duty to vote go into the booth and make their choice as to who they want to govern them (and everybody else). Now, it seems to me that if we are choosing who will run the government and who will “govern,” it would be a good idea to think about what government is and what it is supposed to do. After all, how well can we do a good job choosing GOVERNORS if we don’t understand GOVERNMENT? That’s sort of like picking the best NFL football team based on how their helmet looks.
Of course, that consideration doesn’t seem to enter into some people’s thinking. Most Americans know precious little about nearly every aspect of government. Even a simple straw poll of the Man on the Street consistently shows that the average American (though maybe not ‘you’) doesn’t know even the basics about government– things like, “What are the three branches of government? Who serves as the Secretary of State? Who is the Majority Leader of the Senate? What is a Filibuster?” and so on.
But despite the fact that many do not really understand the role of government, all that is required to choose the most powerful person in the world [POTUS] the President of the United States, is being an American citizen who has done nothing more than simply “been alive” for 18 years– and noting else.
But, for argument’s sake, if a person wanted to learn more about government, what would he or she need to know?
Theories About The Role of Government
The study of the role of government is the business of political science or political philosophy. There are different approaches to governing, but one of the major areas that separates the two major political parties in the United States (Democrat and Republican) is the issue of “Negative” and “Positive” rights. Let me try to explain.
Civil and Social Rights
Civil Rights are sometimes thought of as “negative rights,” while Social Rights are sometimes thought of as “positive rights.” The two major political parties in the United States largely line up along these two perspectives.
Democrats (Social Rights/Positive Rights)
Generally speaking, people who are ideologically committed Democrats (and not just those who consider themselves Dems because their mother was) favor positive/social rights. Positive Rights means that a person believes they have a “claim” to something– that the government owes them some material goods and services. In other words, positive rights are “entitlements.” People with this view think it is the “government’s responsibility” to provide more than just protection and justice. They believe the Fed has the obligation to completely level the playing field between citizens (and sometimes even illegal aliens) by the compulsory enforcement of government-financed entitlement programs which raid money (through taxes, etc.) from one segment of society in order to re-distribute it to others.
So, in short, in this view– the government has the right to forcibly take resources earned by one person/group and to give them to another person or group– even if that person/group did not earn it. This inevitably leads to “big government” because the Fed must “manage” this money and distribute it to those agencies and organizations. This may include an expansion of basic public health into things like “government-provided universal health care” or “state-owned banks,” etc., etc.
One more thing. In addition to a type of re-distribution of wealth or goods, politicians who believe in the idea of positive rights also works to ensure that the government provides resources to certain projects and organizations of its choosing– or “earmarks.” Here, government leaders work to create larger budgets for the expansion of funding for things related to “special interest” groups such as the National Endowment for the Arts or the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), or Stem-Cell Research, or AIDs Research, or the Anti-Gun Lobby, Planned Parenthood or Abortion on Demand monies, Evolution Research, Needle-Exchange Programs, and so on.
Note: Those who reject the Social Right approach (entitlements/big government/tax and spend/special interests/earmarks) are PRIMARILY CONCERNED that these programs are paid for using taxpayer’s money. Whereas it is one thing for programs such as these to exist, it is fundamentally different when government officials subjectively choose specific organizations and issues and programs to fund, while other organizations with other convictions are ignored and excluded from such funding (for example, right to life organizations, and so on).
Republicans (Civil Rights/Negative Rights)
Whereas “True” Democrats hold Social or Positive Rights which express themselves in above the line entitlements, Republicans generally reject that approach. While Republicans agree that these groups have the right to exist, Republican thinkers do not believe they should be forced to pay for them to exist, nor pay for those positions to be financed with private tax resources.
As such, Republicans who truly understand what the overall Republican perspective on government actually is, support “negative” or “civil” rights for all people, but not special rights. So “ideologically committed” Republicans believe that government should provide negative rights, and that it is the responsibility of government to require people to obstain from the harm of others. In other words, rather than government acting in favor of advancing policies for a great host of “causes,” the idea of negative rights simply argues that government should be objective about what rights people receive, which means EITHER the rejection of special interest groups OR a leveling of the playing field where a free and fair market can exist.
This can be a bit confusing, so let me try to unpack it better. Republicans get their understanding on rights from a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Recall that the Declaration said all people have the “unalienable right” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These have historically been called “negative” or “civil” rights. What that MEANS is that government exists to ensure that individuals or groups of people do not forcibly intrude on one another. Accordingly, when a company tries to unjustly violate a person’s rights, government steps in. Or when a person violates another’s unalienable rights (such as the Bill of Rights, etc.), and seeks to harm, murder, kidnap, burglarize, cheat, trespass, supress the vote of, or otherwise restrict another person’s rights, the government will act to stop them– even using force, imprisonment, and punishment.
You see here that, in this case, government is not required to give greater ADVANTAGE to people… but merely to stop the disadvantaging of people. And because the U.S. government was historically created this way and the American body politic understood this, government from a Republican perspective was to be “smaller” with fewer agencies and less bureaucracy, and also made to be non-intrusive except when necessary, as well as to be a supporter of free-market, open trade, lower taxes, and fewer entitlement programs. That, of course, doesn’t mean that Republicans are not for necessary things like unemployment programs or minimum wage laws– but true Republicans with an understanding of negative/civil rights would not seek to expand these approaches in some of the ways Democrats would. You would not, for example, find a thoughtful Republican working to provide social security programs to illegal aliens/undocumented residents, nor would you find Republicans working to expand the Death Tax or Capital Gains Tax in order to give that money to able-bodied people who refuse to work to support their family.
There’s a lot more to government theory– and this brief introduction is certainly abbreviated and somewhat simplistic, but it is nonetheless accurate. It is upon these general principles that much of American politics is built. And once you understand these basics, you will also begin to understand some of the “planks” or “key positions” of each major political party, as those ‘planks’ line up pretty neatly along the principles stated above.
Political Parties By Perspective
Finally, I’ve provided a grid of how I think of some of the various political persuasions in the U.S., and how they might look on a continuum, in my opinion.
SOCIAL RIGHTS —–CIVIL RIGHTS
Communist >> Socialist >> Democrat >> Republican >> Libertarian >> Anarchist
Green >> Independent
There’s enough in this post to make just about everyone mad. My purpose in writing it, however, is that it helps us think about what role Government should play in politics and society. Because I am a Christian, I look to scripture about these matters and generally believe that though the Bible does not identify political parties of choice, it does speak about political issues and, in particular, the role of government. Someone seeking to build a Christian worldview and one wanting to construct a biblical perspective on life would want to look to the Bible to identify how it ‘treats’ these subjects. In my view, it seems that the New Testament (which more accurately represents our time than the Old Testament’s theocracy) tends to favor a less-intrusive approach of government and more of a negative rights approach. Everyone must make these judgments for themselves, but that is what helps dictate my opinions on these matters. Every person has a right and a duty to think about these issues for him/herself.