Thursday, May 5, 2011

Republicans are the Party of Big Intrusive Government

I have criticized the Obama administration several times in previous posts for the manner in which major government initiatives were planned and executed and for issues related to the Bradley Manning affair.  I now would like to turn my attention to the Republicans.

By way of disclosure, I am not a member of any political party – I am enrolled as an independent.  In my view, both US major parties tend to approach issues more on the basis of doctrine and politics than on the basis of evidence and hypothesis testing.

In terms of the role of government in society, I believe that government interventions should be made cautiously.  I think that individuals should be accorded the maximum freedom to pursue their goals to the extent that their activities do not impinge upon the freedom of others.  Markets are an extension of individual freedom allowing mutually-agreed-to, voluntary, exchanges between parties. Furthermore, numerous experiments of history have shown that centrally planned economies have performed poorly, and that when countries convert from centrally planned economic systems to free market systems their economies start to flourish.

At the same time there is clearly a role for government. 

There are functions that are the government’s natural responsibility: protection of individual rights, national defense, law enforcement, courts, etc.

The government may also need to intervene in situations where there is, in the words of Milton Friedman, “market failure.”  Milton Friedman (perhaps the most articulate advocate of free markets) discussed, for example, why a free market approach would fail with regard to the private ownership of roads. In principle, one could have privately built and owned roads – but then one might have to pay a toll every block and there would be many geographically imposed monopolies. 

Finally, we as a society have decided that it is appropriate for the government to intervene to provide a social safety net to those in need.  A completely free market system would mandate no government intervention to prevent starvation, to treat the impoverished sick, and to provide shelter for the homeless.  Milton Friedman believed that private charities could largely provide these services.  However, historically as a society we have decided that private charity is not sufficiently reliable and that the government should ensure the presence of a social safety net.  This decision is a reflection of our ability to empathize with other human beings less fortunate than ourselves.

My approach to government intervention is cautious.  Government should spend resources only when it is confident that those resources are better spent by government than by the taxpayers themselves.  The government should limit its overall expenditure level.  The government should intervene only when a critical analysis of the evidence indicates a clear need for government intervention.  Whenever feasible, one or more hypotheses should then be developed regarding what the proposed intervention should be.   Then these hypotheses should be tested on a small scale to determine whether or not they are in fact beneficial before being implemented on a wide scale (see for example my post on health care).

Republicans claim that they support many of these same ideas.  In particular, Republicans claim that they want the government to intervene to the minimum extent possible in citizens’ lives.  In practice however their actions are often quite the opposite.

The Republicans currently have a preoccupation with the “social issues.” Some of the most prominent “social issues” involve denying rights to gay people, preventing women from having abortions, and inserting religion into government.

One would think that “small” government would mean taking the view that the government should let individuals have the freedom to make their own decisions except when those decisions directly infringe on the freedoms of others.  In virtually all circumstances, the government would defer to individuals the power to make decisions about their own lives.

Perhaps the most prominent current civil rights issue is the right of gays to marry and receive the benefits associated with marriage - now that the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” law regarding military service by gays is fortunately in the process of being reversed.  Marriage rights are extremely substantial including tax, pension, health insurance, visitation, and inheritance rights to name just a few.  Republicans have promoted constitutional amendments and legislation in many states to ban gay marriage and, on a national level, oppose repealing the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  DOMA prevents the federal government from conferring federal benefits on same-sex spouses who are legally married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage.  DOMA also directs other states that they need not recognize the marriage. 

Why should it be any of the government’s business what an individual’s sexual orientation is?  If two people want to join in marriage and start a family – why should the government arrogate to itself the right to check applicants' gender before issuing a government license? The claim that same-sex marriage diminishes opposite-sex marriage is patently absurd.   The claim that the government should ban same-sex marriage because it has an interest in promoting procreation is also absurd – do we ban the marriage of old people, or of people who are infertile for other reasons, or of people who do not intend to have biological children?  All of these claims (as so elegantly argued by the noted conservative lawyer Ted Olson and noted liberal lawyer David Boies in the federal courts in the California Proposition 8 case) are just a subterfuge for an intent to discriminate against gay people and their ability to lead their own independent lives. 

Gay rights is the civil rights issue of our day. I am confident that in a few decades people in the US will look back and consider discrimination against gays to be in precisely the same category as the discrimination against African Americans or any other ethnic group and in precisely the same category as discrimination against women.  Banning same-sex marriage will be considered to be in exactly the same category as banning marriage between whites and African Americans (the infamous anti-miscegenation laws).

Similarly, the Republicans in states and in the Congress are doing whatever they can to prevent women from having abortions which the US Supreme Court has determined that they are legally entitled to. 

With regard to abortion there are two issues that ought be discussed. 

First, does a fetus at some point during gestation acquire some degree of legally protected independent rights? In this regard, does an embryo immediately after conception acquire full rights as a human being? Is a newly conceived embryo consisting of a clump of cells with no developed nervous system and no consciousness  to be considered a person will full civil rights?  What about an embryo at the exact same level of development which was created for purposes of in vitro fertilization and is now sitting frozen in a freezer and is no longer needed for that purpose?  Should disposing of such a frozen embryo be considered murder?  Does that frozen embryo have a civil right to be implanted in a uterus and be born?  Should we conscript women (whether a woman is the biological mother of a given frozen embryo or not) and force them to be impregnated with each of the existing frozen embryos (which now may exceed one million in number) currently sitting in freezers?    

As the above rhetorical questions indicate, I think it is difficult to argue that immediately upon conception an embryo should take on rights of personhood – as the proponents of the mantra “life starts at conception” loudly proclaim.  On the other hand, once a fetus is fully viable and able to live on its own outside of the mother’s body, a concept of personhood would seem appropriate.  It would seem reasonable that if a viable fetus were to be removed from the mother that, whenever possible, it should be removed in a fashion that would enable it to survive.

Second, should the government be able to deny the right of an adult woman to control her own body even if at some point during gestation the fetus were considered to have some independent rights?  Ability to control the use of one’s own body is perhaps the most fundamental of rights.   Along these same lines, should the government mandate that a living individual be compelled to donate his/her body parts (cells, tissue, organs) to a second individual, even if there were no significant risk to the donor and the recipient would die without the donation? We currently don’t require, even after death, that an individual’s body parts must be donated.   I would suggest that one who supports the banning of abortion, to be consistent, should also support compulsory donation of body parts.  Furthermore, to be consistent, those who support the banning of abortion should also support universal health care legislation (I do support such legislation but most Republicans do not).  If one would compel a woman against her will to carry a pregnancy in order to make sure each fetus gets to be born, it would seem that one would certainly be willing to compel taxpayers to give up merely dollars to protect the lives of all human beings after they have already been born.

For the time being, the US Supreme Court has established a woman’s right to abortion until the fetus becomes independently viable. The Republicans are attempting in many ways to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling in order to deny women the right to abortion.  These attempts involve passing state laws that set up hurdles to make it difficult or impossible for women to obtain abortions, harassing physicians and clinics who perform abortions, and denying any government funding, not only for abortions, but for any organization which provides abortion services as part of a much larger set of health services (e.g. Planned Parenthood).

The Republican behavior in these two areas represents, on the part of many party members, an attempt to impose specific religious views about homosexuality and abortion on the entire citizenry.  Individuals have the right to hold whatever beliefs (religious or otherwise) they wish, but not the right to impose those views on the rest of the public.  The writers of the First Amendment to the US Constitution wisely required that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Apparently, the Republican concept of “small” government involves inserting itself into the most private aspects of the lives of its citizens.

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