Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Solving Social Problems

I read a description of a liberal this week - it's simple and elegant and, I think, very accurate - "a liberal is someone with a deep belief in the power of government to solve social problems." I think I'll hold on to this one for those times people insist on calling me a liberal, because I, in no way, could agree with that description.

Now conservative, I think, is a more difficult position to nail down using the same terminology. I know few conservatives who think government (as an idea) is completely worthless, even if that is the stereotype. In that sense, I share with conservatives, the healthy skepticism that government can really solve social problems. At the same time, I tend to butt heads with many conservatives who seem to believe that government will inherently make any social problem worse. For the most part, I sense a belief that government is a necessary evil. I'm not sure I'd go that far.*

I tend to see government as a tool, not a solution. Just like the free market or private enterprise or non-profits or human responsibility, government is a tool society has at its disposal to address problems we see around us. I don't think it's always the most effective tool to use and its often simultaneously the easiest and least efficient, but it is a tool nonetheless. Because I hold this view, I don't see "government" in and of itself as good or evil any more than a hammer or a saw is good or evil - it simply is; judgement comes once we use it for something - AND, it must always be evaluated in context.

Now there are ideological arguments that arise - specifically "government is an inappropriate tool for that job." Some are willing to give up pragmatism in search of ideological purity. I applaud that notion; I might even share it in some instances. However, when it comes to government, I'm entirely practical.

If my choices for pounding in a nail are the blunt side of a wrench or my own hand, I'm gonna give the wrench a go and not worry too much about the appropriateness or efficiency of the choice (which seems to be a conservative tactic). Now I'd also rather not be so content with my ingenuity that I never buy a hammer or even look for a better wrench (which is often the liberal move). There's some sense of desiring an ideal solution so thoroughly that it paralyzes our system - either too stubborn to admit the solution we have is imperfect or too stubborn to admit a bad solution is better than none at all.

Now, I'm always the one screaming "there's never just two choices," so it's not as simple as I outlined above - creativity is good - but that also illustrates my complaints with the typical ways we handle government - it's either a solution or a problem. I'm not willing to call it either. I'd like us to see a more expanded society, in which we use whatever tools at our disposal to address needs. We can ask not, "should the gov't be involved in this or not?" but "in what ways and to what degree does gov't make sense to address this?" The answer might be, "a lot," or, "not at all," or something in between - I'd just rather we figure out something that works, not be satisfied with that answer and also not reject it out of hand for ideological reasons.

I read another lengthy piece about the problems of our prison (and court) system this week. It's an issue that needs addressed (and won, thankfully, members of both major parties want to address). So here, as part of the solution, I'd be fine with private companies and free market forces running the prison system, so long as the government incentivizes (ie, pays) them based on how few prisoners re-offend. I'm fine with prosecutors holding the reigns on prison sentences (as they do now), so long as their judged by crime rates, not conviction rates (and thus invested in long term solutions). To me, that's pragmatic and it makes use of every tool at our disposal, rather then fighting over one.

Portugal decriminalized all drugs for personal use and usage rates dropped (and drug-related health problems plummeted). They've given free methadone and clean needles to addicts in Switzerland for years - and outcomes continue to improve. It works. I'm all for stuff that works. Ideology be damned.

Of course, we can't actually remove ideology from the equation. Everyone believes something about the world and we all use these beliefs to inform our actions. We all have an ideology. We can't divorce our ideology from our participation in society. The point I'm more trying to make is that our government is a shared tool; it can't be governed by any one ideology. It's got to be pragmatic.

Some people believe individual freedom is the highest aim of society; others believe providing for the common good should be ideological aim of humanity. Those people are not likely to be reconciled, but they do have to live together. Thus we have government - the messy attempt to keep everyone from killing each other. People aren't going to agree on ideology, so government must be kept clear of adopting one - it's got to be pragmatic.

This disagreement, though, is also why we must work diligently to remind people that government is not the end-all and be-all of our interactions with each other.

The Church has a unique place in this process. The Church is called to be an alternative community, living out an example of how people can get along with each other in love and sacrifice. The Church should never be involved in running government - it's certainly not a Christian duty to impose beliefs or actions on anybody.** If there are problems the Church believes should be addressed ideologically (and, for the Church, all problems should be addressed that way), it's the duty of the Church to do it, not worry about trying to make the government do it. Yes, government can make the efforts of the Church to be faithful to its calling easier or more difficult, but government certainly can't prevent the attempt.

Any other ideological group is free to pursue the same alternative community. If someone wants to found a collective based entirely on individual freedom, they are, of course, free to do so. Yes, government might make that more difficult than we'd like, but if the ideology is strong enough, people will see the truth in it. That's the belief of the Church anyway; I find it odd anyone would believe in something they don't think could ultimately win people over without coercion.

The government can't be that avenue for ideology - mine or anyone else's - precisely because it's an involuntary organization. People could, I suppose, up and leave, if they were really fed up, but it's an unrealistic solution for most and, ultimately, if it's not this government it will be another.

I don't think it's wrong for people to voice their opinions - that's sort of the whole point of government in a democracy. We express our views on how things should work, hear competing views and try to figure out some compromise. It's this whole business of treating government like something we can win that's driving the problems. Ideology can only win out on its own merits. It can't be enforced.*** When there are different people involved, the opinions will be different.

Government is a tool. We can (and maybe should) have strong beliefs about the appropriate use of that tool, but, in the end, we're going to have to come to some agreement about how to actually use the tool. I might eventually convince you and you might eventually convince me, but it's not going to happen through argument and law, it'll happen through providing a credible example.

Let's use the wrench to drive nails for now, and work on a better hammer as we go along.

*Although I do see government as unavoidable, which is sort of like both "necessary" and "evil" in a different context. You're always going to have someone telling you what to do - whether it be an elected Congress or a guy with a bigger gun; whether you see them every day or just once every couple years, none of us will ever be left entirely alone. There's always going to be some type of government. I suspect, given that reality, it'll also always been seen by people as a means of power, rather than, as I say here, a tool. I tend, from this context, to look at government's necessary-ness and evil as simply a given and worry more about its function - pragmatically - as I outline here.

**There's still this undercurrent running through Christianity (even when it's not outrightly claimed) that our nation should be a Christian nation, governed by moral laws, informed by Christ. I wrote a lot about this last month, so I won't rehash it here - just to say I think this idea is a horrible corruption of the gospel of Jesus Christ as should be opposed as strenuously as possible.

***Unless your ideology is "everyone should do what I say without questioning," then, you know, I guess, good luck, Hitler.

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