John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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On the Nature of Freedom in a Multi-Cultural Society

Posted on June 28, 2010
Taking my dog out for a walk in my neighborhood, I passed by two grand old houses that were clearly in a state of disrepair.  I saw my friend Tony, who lives next to them, and asked what the back story was.  He told me about a lady who owned several houses on Capitol Hill, where I live, who moved away but keeps ownership of the houses.

“It’s kind of a fetish thing with her.  As soon as the DC government threatens to tear the houses down, she pays her back taxes and they back off,” Tony said.

The houses are eyesores.  Their floors are crumbling in.  Who knows what goes on inside of them?

Fetish or no, the owner’s actions are irresponsible, a threat to her neighbors’ property and a perfect reason for the government to move in and take action.

Government exists for a reason:  To take collective action on behalf of the people when the general welfare requires it.

The story of the abandoned houses got me thinking about the nature of freedom in a multi-cultural society as big and as complex as the United States.  The rise of the Tea Party movement has challenged the 20th century consensus for what is and what isn’t the appropriate role for government.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s influential novel first published a half century ago, has been enjoying a rebirth as of late.  One of her objectivist adherents – Rand Paul – won the Republican nomination for the Senate in the State of Kentucky, and the next day challenged both the constitutionality and the wisdom of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  And Tea Party adherents, carrying signs bearing the words “Don’t Tread on Me”, are pining for some mythical days of yore, where Americans could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

I read Ayn Rand in college, and I find her novels and her philosophy to be thought-provoking and even entertaining.  But her philosophy is not really useful in a society as complex as ours.

Conservatives used to have a pretty realistic view of human nature.  They used to understand that sometimes, collective action was needed to act as a restraint on the baser impulses of human conduct.  They didn’t subscribe to the theory that an invisible hand would guide people to act for the betterment of society as a whole.  They knew that there were criminals, and evil-doers and con-men and flim-flammers and irresponsible characters who needed some sort of legal authority to compel them to act responsibly.

The idea that somehow if people all worked in their own-self interests and if we have the governing philosophy of caveat emptor that the free-market unregulated would work it all out for the betterment of all society is complete poppycock.

The fact of the matter is that the laws of the jungle are all fine and dandy for the jungle, but they aren’t very good for a modern, civilized society.

Somebody just can’t let their house go to pot, because it has a negative impact on the whole neighborhood.  Irresponsibility breeds disrepair, which breeds a breakdown in society.

So, government is a necessary part of modern society.  It may be too big, and it may spend too much and it may not be very competent, but without it, our society would be in big trouble.

Getting government right is one of the keys to promoting a successful society.

Getting government wrong can be devastating to a society.

Just look at the different experiences of two neighboring states, Illinois and Indiana.

Both have the same basic geography, the same basic breakdown in population, the same natural resources, the same weather.  But Illinois is going broke while Indiana has a budget surplus.  Why?  Government.

The Illinois political system, with one governor already in jail and another on his way to jail, has collapsed.  As a result, the State can’t meet its pension obligations, businesses are looking for ways to leave it, unemployment is high, and the people are suffering.

Indiana - because of the effective actions of its governor, Mitch Daniels – has a budget surplus, has better than expected unemployment rate, has a favorable investment climate and is doing relatively well.

Government, to be effective, must first be responsible for its own actions.  It must live within its means, it must do what it says it is going to do, and it must keep its ambitions consistent with the desires of the voters.

Not all of these conflicts should be litigated at the federal level.  Like the House example, most conflicts need to be resolved at the local level.

States have different cultural and ethnic histories, and that sometimes gives a state flavor to the law.  Utah, for example, has a different view of booze than does Louisiana, because the Mormons who founded Utah frowned on alcohol while the Catholics who founded New Orleans smile upon it.  New York is far more liberal on social issues than Alabama.

The federal government needs to step up when the States won’t or can’t.  The most obvious example came with the civil rights fights of the 1950’s and 60’s.  Southern states, by law and by custom, promoted discrimination in a way that was not only intensely unfair, but also antithetical to the nature of a free society.  The federal government had no option but to step in.

Of course, today the Federal government oversteps its bound so often and so willingly that the rebellion that is going on out in the country seems to me to be a necessary reaction to put the Feds back in their place.

But let’s not confuse the idea of right-sizing the Federal government with the idea of getting rid of government entirely.  There are many things that the Federal government shouldn’t do that should be done by the State and many other things that should be done by local government.

Getting rid of oversized Federal government is one thing.  Getting rid of all government is something else entirely.