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'Affirmative government' could foster public civility


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POSTED: Friday, April 02, 2010

The specter of partisans spitting on congressmen with whom they disagree over health care — or hurling bricks through their office windows — should offend every American.

These outrages recall the excesses of the left-wing opposition to the Vietnam War and their outrageous actions and characterizations of political leaders. Neither has a place in a civilized democracy, and those who fail to forcefully condemn such behavior deserve scorn themselves.

Where are President Lincoln's “;better angels of our nature?”; Perhaps a new way of thinking about the role of government would provide angels with a chance to emerge. Much is made about limited government. But, what can that term mean in a time when Medicare and Social Security, or wars fought by citizen soldiers with no sacrifice demanded of any other citizens, are political reality? What does limited government mean in a time of unlimited problems facing society?

Why not think in terms of “;affirmative”; government? Why not think of government in terms of how it can help individual citizens better their own lives? Why not assert core functions of government as a measure of the appropriate scope of government and then have the wisdom to pay for those functions?

Affirmative government would be rooted in the preamble of the Constitution, which claims responsibility for the government to “;provide for the common defense”; and “;promote the general welfare.”; It would affirm these terms in historical context; that general welfare in 2010 would be materially different than in 1789, and defense in the 21st century will demand different actions than would have been appropriate in the 18th century.

Affirmative government would use effectiveness as a measure, upholding core values such as the dignity of every person, equal justice under law and the nobility of community action, even while celebrating individual worth.

Affirmative government implies standing for, not merely standing against. Practical application might look like this: There are core functions of government having broad support — guaranteeing opportunity in a comparatively free market system, defending the nation against enemies foreign and domestic, building roads and other infrastructure, stimulating innovation to ensure a strong economy, providing a safety net for “;these, the least of [our] brethren”; while enabling individuals to recover self-reliance lost for whatever reasons. There might be more agreed core values, or fewer.

Once the core functions are agreed, the cost can be tabulated and individual shares of the cost apportioned. No longer would the argument devolve into a pointless argument about higher or lower taxes. We agree on our agenda and we agree to pay our fair share. Few object to paying taxes for effective service.

Affirmative government is about governing, not about imposing morality. Affirmative government asserts the virtue of religion and moral philosophy to support belief but understands belief to be a private matter, not appropriate for public policy. Affirmative government, thus, takes out of public discourse matters of private morality.

Continuing the same disagreeableness in politics risks the violent incivility of recent weeks or anarchical demagoguery that can only lead to disaster.

What about the party of “;No”; becoming the party of affirmative government? Perhaps we'd spot the angels again.

Daniel E. White is headmaster of Island Pacific Academy.