Saturday, November 20, 2010

Education and Citizenship

The arguments for smaller government that buoyed the ascendancy of tea-party conservatives in the midterm election can be very compelling. What is, after all, not to like about lower taxes? Why should the government be telling us how to live--by mandating warnings on cigarette packages, toying with restrictions on high fructose corn syrup, telling us what our kids need to eat at school, or insisting that everybody have health insurance whether they want it or not?

At the heart of the problem, however, is the fact that most of the public "argument" (such as it is) is based on faulty premises and a critical misunderstanding of history. Fueling the fight against the "socialistic" policies of the Obama administration is a badly painted picture of life at the birth of our republic, and the character of the (white, propertied) men who wrote the Constitution--and this dooms reason from the beginning.

No claim based on problematic reasons can ultimately succeed without rhetorical smoke-blowing and obscuring evidence to the contrary. Thus, many of the claims that opponents of "Obamacare" offer, for example, are supported by scary suggestions (not evidence) that health care reform will ultimately bankrupt our children, or that it will drive Granny to an early grave. Now, I'm more than willing to listen to your views, but only if you ground them in evidence; if the evidence is lacking, you can't just make stuff up. So if you're going to argue that "the Government" is violating the Constitution, be sure you've read it carefully, read commentary on what the articles mean (from more than one source), and pay some serious attention to the context in which it was written.

According to U. S. census figures for 1790, the first year a census was held, the population of the country in the year after the Constitution was ratified numbered around 4 million people. The figure for 2010 is upwards of 309 million. In 1790 there were no major roads, no electricity, no natural gas lines, no safe, reliable water supply--and thus no real upkeep or major infrastructure issues to fund. The U. S. Treasury fact sheet on the history of taxation notes that early taxes were raised from sources that varied widely from state to state:

Before the Revolutionary War, the colonial government had only a limited need for revenue, while each of the colonies had greater responsibilities and thus greater revenue needs, which they met with different types of taxes. For example, the southern colonies primarily taxed imports and exports, the middle colonies at times imposed a property tax and a 'head' or poll tax levied on each adult male, and the New England colonies raised revenue primarily through general real estate taxes, excises taxes, and taxes based on occupation.

One of the causes of that war, in fact, was the felt need of England to levy taxes on the colonies to pay for its wars abroad. The last straw was the tax levied on tea--and this seems to have also led to the future reluctance of American citizens to pay any taxes. The modern "Tea Party" seems to have forgotten that the battle cry of the tax protesters in 1773 was "Taxation without representation is tyranny." Like 'em or not, however, both houses of Congress are made up of elected representatives these days--so we're hardly being taxed without representation. If we don't like the results, we can throw the bums out. Which happens about every two years.

The point toward which I'm meandering is this: things are mighty different today than they were then. We no longer restrict the vote to propertied white males. There are gazillions more of us, a huge national transportation system that includes highways, railways, and airways, enormous electrical grids, gas pipelines, and all the other bits of technology that glue us together as a nation. And despite our overall wealth (even in these just-post-recession times), we do not have a measurably higher standard living than other developed countries that tax themselves silly.

Comparing the country now to the colonies in 1776 (or even the United States in 1790) is ridiculous. It's like comparing Adam Smith's idea of capitalism (kept in reign by the Invisible Hand) to the kind of capitalism that led to the recent depression. We're not even talking apples and oranges here; it's more like apples and lawn furniture.

The main purpose of government is to look after the public good by overseeing what can't be handled effectively by individuals or by individual states. And the first responsibility of governed citizens is to participate in their governance by electing representatives who have that good at heart. In order to do so, however, we have to be knowledgeable about processes and context; we can't just hop off and vote for any knucklehead who puts up a scary ad. The best defense against tyranny is an educated populace.

Now that the Supreme Court has declared that groups (corporations, unions, non-profits, and others) count the same as individual citizens, the job of educating ourselves becomes more difficult, because we have to be able to peel away all the subtexts that inform the ads that can be funded anonymously in favor of or against particular candidates. And because we've become not only less well-educated about but also less involved with national politics, we're much more susceptible to scare tactics and misinformation. On top of it all, we now get most of our news from commentators and pundits (whether Glen Beck or Kieth Olbermann) who specialize in verbal heat, rather than from reading newspapers and mulling over differing positions.

In the end, our value as citizens, and our ability to solve problems and insure the survival of the republic depends significantly on education. The more, the better, according to a 2005 report from the College Board. Participation in our own governance occurs in several ways, not the least important of which are through voting and paying taxes.

Now, I know the post-election mantra is all about reducing taxes. Some folks seem to think these are nothing but an imposition, and are used only to fund welfare queens and deadbeats. But in a country as large as ours, that depends so completely on the condition of its economic delivery systems (like transportation and other infrastructure), we cannot keep going without taxes. And the more prosperous we are, the more we seem to depend on these same systems--which means that our taxes need to be commensurate with our use of national facilities.

Remember that we all breathe the air, we all used the interstate highways, we share large public water sources, and so we do need oversight to keep individual states from deciding that they don't give a whiz about anybody else. (And if you think states don't do this, you don't live in Texas.) That means that in addition to paying taxes, we need to make sure the government regulates commerce to the extent that it affects individual citizens within the larger structure of the nation.

Education is about much more than just getting a job that pays well. A good education will provide us with worthwhile, interesting work that's more than just a paycheck. But it also helps us to fulfill our obligations as citizens by providing us with tools: critical thinking and mathematical skills (so we can evaluate arguments and understand statistics), historical perspective (so we remember what really happened in the founding years of our nation), and the general ability to articulate our positions and beliefs in order to make our voices heard.

It's extremely important to remember, in these almost radically anti-intellectual times, that our founding fathers were much better educated than most of us are today. Many of them read Greek and Latin, knew the classics, and were well-acquainted with the Enlightenment philosophies of their contemporaries: John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, George Berkeley, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Thomas Hobbes. Some of them, notably Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Madison, occupy the same pantheon as the Enlightenment thinkers from Europe.

I doubt seriously that many of those touting their love of the Constitution as a reason for opposing the duly elected President and Congress could hold a conversation with any of these guys--much less really understand what they were espousing. This isn't just an indictment of the noisy Right, but also of an uncritical Left. The architects of our government disagreed on many issues, but they were united in their belief that they could build a solid, enduring alternative to colonial rule.

I really hope we don't prove their faith to be ill founded.

Image credit: Junius Brutus Stearns, Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, 1856. Via Wikimedia Commons.