The Role of Government
(Issue #6 - 2002-10-21)
The government of any country, ours included, has several very clear mandates and goals. The government exists to serve the people, to provide the machinery of a functional society, to ensure the preservation of the rights of its people and to protect its people from the aggressions of other governments. In most regards, our government fails to meet these goals, or even to try to reach them.
With regards to serving the people, it has become eminently clear that the government mostly serves the government itself and the very wealthy who are able to buy influence in the government. For all intents and purposes, the people themselves might not exist in the eyes of the government. They do, of course exist as the raw material that supports the government through taxes and through individual labor, but the general population no longer has any influence of note in our government. It seems as if politicians and advisors are culled from the ranks of the very wealthy. People go directly from being CEOs of corporations to becoming cabinet members and vice presidents. There is no place in this hierarchy for the voice of the common person. Instead, political decisions are made with the wealth of donors, not by the will of the people.
Our government is corrupt, from the very top all the way down to the level of city politics, yet we rarely talk about it. In reading Achebe's "No Longer at Ease" recently, a novel about corruption in post-colonial Nigeria, I was struck by how familiar the scenes of corruption and bribery are. They are the things we deal with every day in our government. It was just disclosed today that California's governor Davis received huge amounts of money from wealthy people who wanted the government to rule in their favor regarding some beachfront property dispute or other. In this country, we call this fundraising. Other, more rational people would call it bribery, extortion and corruption. A government fails in its mandate to serve the people when it is as blatantly corrupt as ours.
The government of our country is also clearly uninterested in preserving the machinery of a functional society. A functional society does not keep nearly one percent of its population in prison. A free and fair society would recognize that any system that locks up 2 million of its own citizens is a failing society. To lay the blame on personal responsibility is ridiculous when dealing with such numbers. When the government can lock its citizens away for growing plants (marijuana) or associating with undesirables (recent terror-sweeps and many state gang laws), it is promoting the dissolution of society. The state of criminal law in the U.S. serves only the interests of the ruling class. It keeps people afraid, both among the middle class who are afraid of the crime that is mistakenly thought to be ever increasing, and among the criminalized underclass who know that they may be arrested on any pretext at any time. A fearful population is an obedient one.
At the same time, the criminalized underclass provide a docile work force and prison provides vast wealth to the few through both slave labor and through government contracts that swell with each new prisoner. Take the case of a company like Sodexho who simultaneously lobbies for tougher sentencing laws and runs most of the food services for U.S. prisons. Companies like that, with a direct stake in the outcome of imprisoning more Americans, should have no say in the process.
Our government maintains a dysfunctional society by abandoning so much of it to poverty. While Microsoft paid no federal tax in 2000, hundreds of thousands of Americans live beneath the poverty line. The government provides them with no health care, housing or protection from their largest predator – the police, yet the wealthy and corporate who make up our government flourish on the backs of the desperate and frightened. This is not a functional society, it is one that is always on the brink of disaster. It is kept in line with fear, totalitarian law and the diversions of military adventurism overseas.
Our government does little to preserve the rights of the people. Consider article 25 of the UN charter on human rights, which says, in part, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services." If these are rights, why does the government not guarantee our right to housing and health care? Are we not part of the U.N.? Instead, we have tens of thousands of homeless. We have millions without health care, and millions more living far enough in poverty to be denied their right to an adequate standard of living.
Instead, our government focuses on increasing the rights of corporations and decreasing individual rights. The list of constitutional rights that have been eroded is large: The fourth amendment, which forbids unreasonable search and seizure has been largely discarded. Blanket wiretaps, unwarranted searches of persons and automobiles and pre-trial asset seizure have made a mockery of the 4th. Amendment six has been violated with the arrest this year of American citizens who have been held without charges or trial. Amendment fifteen, which prohibits racially-based restrictions on voting has been rendered useless with the debacle in Florida during the 2000 elections. African-Americans were disproportionately denied access to voting, either because of criminal backgrounds forced upon them by a racist system, or because of directly racist voting rules. It would seem that there are very few rights that we can be certain of any more, short of the rights that we can afford to buy.
On the surface, it would seem that the last article in the list of government responsibilities would be the one most vigorously pursued by the federal government: the protection of its people against other governments' aggression. However, if you probe a little, the truth is that our massive military and our government's actions in foreign affairs does nothing to protect us. To begin with, the concept of an attack by a foreign army on the U.S. completely ridiculous. If you thought waging a land war against Russia was a bad idea, try the U.S. For anyone to attack a country of 300 million people, surrounded by oceans, covered with every imaginable geographic barrier and supported the wealth of the U.S. would be purely suicidal. That rational for obscene defense expenditures can be discredited out of hand.
What our military might does again and again is support the financial interests of American corporations abroad. The rhetoric that is used to promote our invasions and occupations is not even masked in pro-democracy language anymore. "The preservation of a free economy" is the phrase that is thrown out the most often. Every year, we have troops on the ground in a number of foreign countries, but does it make our country any safer? Not at all. No amount of heavy weaponry will be able to stop dedicated terrorists from causing tremendous damage to the people of the U.S. In fact, most significant threats to public safety are purely domestic. Timothy McVeigh couldn't have been stopped by our military. In fact, he was a member of it! We have the most powerful army in the world, yet it has done nothing to help the 11,000 Americans that are shot each year. In this, final, point of governmental responsibility our government fails miserably as well.
At what point does a government become so ill-suited to rule its people that it must be declared outlaw and invalid? Is our government there yet? I'm not certain, but I am deeply troubled. At what point should the German people have realized that Hitler was a bad idea? When he segregated his population? When he allowed his police to run riot over his people? When he built up massive military power with nowhere to take it but out? When he invaded a sovereign nation? Aren't these all things that our country is doing or considering right now? I don't have a solution that would make our government workable and dedicated to its core mandate, but it should be clear that what it does now bears no resemblance to what it should be doing.
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