When Government is Wrong

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Now that tax day has come and gone, we should pause and think about where all that money went. Because for all the debate over taxes and deficits there is one thing on which all of us can agree: that some of our money is paying for things we don't individually support. Perhaps it's one or all of the wars we are engaged in, or maybe it's a social program. Businesses may strive to cater to our individual preferences, but none of us gets a customized federal or state budget.

In that moment we come face to face with the following reality: that in order to avert calamity or reduce suffering we allow our government to do things that strike many of us as wrong. In order to prevent the collapse of the financial system we bailed out the very banks that brought the crisis upon us.  To alleviate the impact of poverty we have created a safety net that, in the opinion of some, undermines the very incentives that drive our economy. It is this disconnect between policy response and our moral impulses that explains much of the political fervor in our country these days.

Yet our government's actions reflect more than just expedience or the influence of money and special interest.  They manifest the underlying and ultimately uncomfortable truth that in our complex and interconnected society we have to help people we don't like all that much. There is moral clarity to the position that poor judgment should have consequences. But the practical consideration is that individual misfortunes can quickly cascade in a chain reaction that overwhelms the prudent and the innocent as well.

Oh how we wish that weren't the case. The right's nostalgia for small-town America and the emphasis that the left places on community both express the same preference for situations in which we are called upon only to help people who are essentially like ourselves. Religions may call upon us to welcome the stranger in our midst, but to politics falls the more difficult task of making us accept the fellow citizen and the neighbor that we don't like.

With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.