As the budget sequestration looms, it seems that the government is caught in a stalemate as both sides “stand on principle,” unwilling to compromise on core values. Which would seem to be a good thing. After all, isn’t that what we ask of ourselves and our friends—that we stand up for what we believe in, that we hold fast to what is most dear?
The problem is that most of the values that those in the budget non-conversation are clinging to aren’t actually values. Lower taxes is not a value, nor is smaller government. They are strategies. As are Medicaid, Social Security and Obamacare. Independence is a value. Compassion is a value. Liberty is a value. Equality is a value. These are things that one can stand for on principle. But the defense budget or health insurance for children, or any of the thousands of other things that are part of the government purview are simply means to an end.
So here is my modest proposal: maybe we should start with the values, the essentials, and work outward from there. But how do we know what the essentials are? Who gets to decide what the government is really here for? Well, as it turns out, we already have that statement. If you are of my generation, perhaps you memorized it (and the accompanying tune) from Schoolhouse Rock: “We the People, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution.”
Now, I’m not saying that it is in any way obvious how every given decision should come down when you hold on to these essentials. How much money goes to the common defense and how much to the general welfare? But here’s the thing. While we take these essentials as given, any of the strategies to achieve these ends can be tested and evaluated. Does investing $6000 per taxpayer in a fighter jet system that has yet to function properly most efficiently provide for the common defense, or might the money be better spent elsewhere? Does subsidizing corn or fossil fuels promote the general welfare, or might the general welfare be better off if we put our shared money into fresh vegetables and renewable energy? Does a tax structure that leans most heavily on the wealthiest help out domestic tranquility and the general welfare, or have we found more tranquility and general welfare when the tax burden shifted toward those on the lower end of the economic scale?
Of course, it’s not that simple. Our government runs largely on sponsorship rather than logic. But isn’t it nice to imagine a government of the people, by the people, for the people, loyal to the guiding principles set out in our Constitution, and led by reason and science to serve the needs of ourselves and our posterity? It doesn’t hurt to dream.