Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why We Need Strong and Stable Governments

One of the most misguided notions being promoted today is that our governments should run more like a business. The belief that a "responsible" government shouldn't operate at a deficit, and that the government ought to put its attention primarily on national defense and social justice and leave it to the free markets and corporations to manage the rest of society totally misses the point of effective governance.

Many of our founding fathers were successful businessmen, yet when they conceived the federal government they never once mentioned corporations, balanced budgets or focusing on short-term business objectives. In fact, their overarching vision for government was that its primary purpose was to protect the people and to preserve and protect the public commons. A government of the people, by the people and for the people isn't therefore a government intended to operate with monetary objectives in mind, but with the goals, desires and needs of people in mind.

Governments and corporations not only have different drivers, they also have different capacities. A corporation answers to investors and shareholders and is responsible for earning quarterly and annual profits, so it MUST hold its short-term profit objectives front and center when it decides what to do. Companies can't afford to focus too intently on where they're headed over the long-term, especially if doing so means they might have to divert funds and invest them in future projects that would render them unprofitable for an extended period of time. Corporations are therefore inherently limited in their ability to imagine and activate a higher vision for a better humanity. They must instead wait until whatever problems we're facing become so acute that solving them will be profitable before they'll tackle those problems with any degree of sincerity. That attitude often conflicts with what humanity would like to see happen when it comes to addressing our social and environmental challenges. Do we really want to wait until oil prices reach $500 a barrel and we're having national shortages again before we get serious about alternative energy sources? What happens if we wait too long to direct significant energy toward the problem and wind up running out of oil before we've figured out our next approach?

Government, on the other hand, has the ability to take a long-term view of what's best for humanity and direct its attention toward achieving those long term-goals, even if they take generations to reach fruition. The highway system is a great example of this. We began conceiving a national highway system in the 1930's, but it was only in the early 2000's that we actually fulfilled that vision by paving the last few hundred miles of road that had been laid out in those early plans. What corporation do you know that could have imagined, designed, funded and completed a project of that magnitude over a span of more than seventy years?

We also often hear people say things like, "Individuals know best how to spend their own money. Keep that money in the pockets of the people, don't give it to the government." While that may sound good to someone who's hurting financially, the truth is our governments have the capacity to tackle projects so vast in scope that no individual, local community or even state has enough energy and resources available to effectively complete them. Think of the massive electrical grid that spans this nation, or the vast dams, levees and water delivery systems we've constructed over the years. Consider our national network of community colleges as well as the entire public education system. I might indeed "know best" how to spend my own money, but what I know doesn't help me much when it comes to building a school, constructing a dam or replacing a rickety bridge in my neighborhood. Government affords us the opportunity to pool our resources and collectively invest in our social welfare. Government therefore IS socialism, pure and simple. Why we've bought into the notion that anything done on a collective level to promote the well being of all of us is a bad thing reflects our residual fears around the prospect of totalitarianism or fascism gaining a foothold in our nation if we permit government the strength to do its job well. That has little to do with our own reality, and much to do with the bad memories we have of how other governments have abused and misused their authority.

Last but not least, because government's charter is to protect the citizenry and protect and preserve the public commons, LIFE and the health and needs of life lie at the heart of the government's mission. Government is the only modern institution we've designed to remain above concerning itself with whether or not something is financially profitable. Instead, it has the power to make decisions based on whether a behavior is detrimental to life, to society, to the environment and to the survival of the species in the long-run, and to make decisions from that perspective. If we continue to attack government and reduce its capacity to make decisions that are supportive of life first and foremost, what are we left with? A world that places profits before people, money before resources and short-term gratification before long-term health and well being? Is that truly the world we wish to create for ourselves? And if we do, how long will we be able to live in it before it collapses because we've failed to nurture and protect life itself?

Too many of us today have grown seduced by the belief that everything we do must be viewed through the lens of its "economic viability." What a narrow perspective, and how limiting that is! While we wail and worry about whether or not we can afford to do this or that, The living, breathing world around us is crying out for our attention to resolve the very REAL problems and challenges we're facing with regards to the protection of our environment, the preservation of our natural resources, the social inequities of our societies, the global suffering caused by manufactured poverty and the ongoing decimation and extinction of other species.

We can continue to direct the bulk of our attention toward deciding what we "can afford" to do and remain mired in that short-term and limited perspective, or we can re-contextualize our worldview to honor the needs of life ahead of profits. The thing is, if we fail to do so, no amount of paper profit we may earn will be enough to breathe life back into our planet once we've destroyed its capacity to carry us.

That's the most grave challenge we're facing today. The surface battle between corporatism and governance is simply a reflection of that problem, the battleground on which the philosophical war between life and money is being waged. Clearly though, if we destroy government's ability to promote the values and needs of life in favor of promoting corporate profits and our own short-term gratification, we'll be sending a loud and clear message to mother Earth: we're not interested in becoming a genuinely sustainable and participatory species in the web of life. Like children, we want what we want, right here and now, and we don't much care who or what gets hurt while we attempt to achieve it.

Because we're embedded in an inextricably interconnected web of life, we won't be permitted to maintain a selfish attitude much longer. It's not personal; but because life operates as a feedback loop the system won't sit back and allow humanity to destroy Earth's entire living habitat since that means humanity too would eventually die out. It'll solve the problem the way it always has, through species reduction or outright extinction. So while we may think we have free will to behave as we wish - and in the short run perhaps we do - in the long run the choice is already out of our hands.

Humanity must grow up soon. It's not a choice, it's an evolutionary mandate.

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