Thoughts for the Holiday Weekend

This is the 4th of July holiday weekend, and most of us are planning cookouts, fireworks celebrations and the like. In my house, we’ve been getting ready for a long-planned European trip–giving instructions to the graduate student who has graciously agreed to “house sit,” making sure our packing list is complete, etc.

But it is also an appropriate time to think about the state of our country and its government. So as this celebratory weekend gets off to a start, allow me to share some random concerns.

  • One of America’s great assets has been the fact that, as a nation, we’ve never been particularly ideological.  We’ve been one of the newest and most pragmatic of countries, and as a result we’ve escaped some of the worst results of hereditary privilege, class resentment, and zealotry. That seems to be changing.
  • Checks and balances were meant to ensure that no branch of government got too powerful; is it possible that we have gone too far toward “checking” and lost our “balance”? The founders didn’t have political parties, and I doubt they envisioned a time when a political party in the legislative branch would close ranks and simply refuse to co-operate or negotiate with the administration. Whether this is due to ideology or politics hardly matters–it makes governing virtually impossible. (The Democrats would undoubtedly love to do the same thing if the situations were reversed, but they lack the ideological consistency and organizational discipline to pull it off.) Structures matter more than current punditry might suggest, and when lawmaking is structured to require a measure of participation and compromise from all sides, the absence of that co-operation is a very serious problem.
  • This country has given so much to its citizens, yet some of those who have benefited the most seem least willing to acknowledge that debt, and least willing to pull their own weight. The other day, a wealthy man of my acquaintance told me that he’d made his money without help from anyone, and didn’t see why he should pay taxes to support people who hadn’t worked as hard and been as successful. No one gave me anything, he said. Of course, his parents were able to raise him in a stable society, and could send him and his siblings to good public schools. Public agencies made sure his food was safe to eat. When he graduated from his (public) university and started his business, he didn’t have to pay off the local authorities. He had access to public roads that allowed him to receive raw materials and ship his goods.  Municipal police and firefighters ensured the safety of his home and business. Impartial courts decided his disputes with customers or suppliers. The existence of a stable, regulated economy meant he could borrow necessary capital. And on and on…..These are assets that people in many other countries lack. Good governments create the conditions that make free enterprise possible. It constantly amazes me that so many people fail or refuse to understand that.
  • Our governments–state and federal–are far from perfect, and some of our policies are positively insane. (We may or may not agree on which ones those are.) But dammit, patriotism isn’t wearing a flag pin on your lapel. Patriotism is civic involvement in the nitty-gritty of politics and governance–voting, attending public meetings, writing letters to elected officials. And paying taxes–so that America can continue to provide a social and physical infrastructure that allows people to succeed.

Happy Fourth of July.