This piece was first published by The Hill on January 7, 2021 and can be accessed in its original version here
Joe Biden has become president at a time when Americans are struggling again with two fundamental questions: What is government for and how much of it do we need? They are questions with deep roots in our history.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution speak clearly about the purpose of government. The Declaration says, “that to secure these rights (to life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness) Governments are instituted among men.” This is a straightforward statement. People need Government to defend their unalienable rights. Without government, in a phrase from Thomas Hobbes that the Founders certainly had read, “life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” What the Founders were trying to create between 1776 and 1790, therefore was a structure of government strong enough to protect the rights and liberties of all Americans from dominating individuals and factions, but with safeguards so that government itself could not be used easily to suppress and exploit the people. All of the Constitution is a complex structure of government designed to safeguard people’s rights from usurpations by other people and by the government itself.
The Founders were not naïve. They were students of history and knew the challenges involved in trying to use government to civilize aggressive human nature. Civilization itself requires government to enforce a minimal amount of recognition of the rights of others. In other words, good government requires a modicum of personal repression that is grudgingly acceptable to most people in a representative government but that is for example unacceptable to Donald Trump and those who model themselves after his behavior.
The Founders and most citizens understand that without a certain amount of government force many Americans would not pay their fair share of taxes for things of benefit to the nation. Many would not pay voluntarily to support George Washington’s army. They would not like to be taxed to pay for Alexander Hamilton’s lighthouses on the coast or roads and canals in the interior that would benefit the nation but not themselves directly. Later many did not like to be taxed to electrify rural areas or open schools to give other Americans a chance. Many today will not repress themselves enough to wear masks to protect others. The Founders would not have been surprised by the unwillingness of so many beneficiaries of America’s blessings to share these blessings fairly with others. They understood the clay they were trying to meld together in their new republic.
Civilization itself is about using government to repress greedy and violent short-term instincts that even people much more virtuous than Donald Trump will not repress if they are not made to do so. Government also is needed to protect the interests of generations to come. Many more species would be extinct in America if government did not protect them from unrestrained individuals with scant regard for the future. There would be no cod in the waters off New England if government did not protect the fisheries from short-sighted exploitation. American forests would have been cut down and topsoil washed away if there had been no government to stop people from cutting every last tree. Air pollution would still be as awful in the U.S. as it is in India and China if local, state, and federal government did not restrain individuals in the name of the community. Seven- and eight-year-olds might still be forced to work if government had not stepped in to protect them. Our food and water would still be contaminated without government. Slavery was not collapsing of its own weight in 1861. Government made it collapse. Stock speculators cannot be counted on to police themselves. Crooks and monopolists need to be reined in by government.
This idea of government as an essential protector of the rights of all the people from generation to generation is a value that has not always been honored in the United States. It was explicitly given that place of honor, however, during the administrations of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt who all worked to limit the ability of wealthy individuals and powerful corporations to exploit other Americans. That had not been the mindset of laissez-faire presidents in the late 1800s. Nor is it the mindset of more recent anti-government ideologues, who seem to believe that the privileged will look after the rights and interests of other Americans without the government stepping in.
The arrival of plain, decent Joe Biden after the uncivilized, unrepressed reign of Donald Trump and his imitators and apologists may be reawakening the idea in conservatives as well as liberals that America itself has more democratic and longer-term purposes than acquiring gold plated bathroom fixtures. I feel a sense that civilization with its requirement for modest self-restraint is reemerging in America in the form of Biden government after 50 years of over-the-top selfishness that Trumpism took to its ugly extreme. Two-weeks into the Biden term, America feels like it wants to be more than just the self-abasing court to a preening kinglet. Trump and Trumpism were a vicious attack on civilized government and the modest self-restraint and fairness that defines it. Thoughtful awakened conservatives and liberals may be recognizing that fact in the first weeks of the Biden era. The Founders would be pleased and hopeful.