Jewish World Review May 1, 2001 / 8 Iyar, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WE seem finally to have arrived at a time in which the stated purpose of government has degenerated into being almost exclusively economic.
The soaring words of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution have been boiled away, inspissated like thickened gravy, so that all we have left are these disheartening words from one of President Bush's recent sales pitches for his tax cut:
"... the role of government is not to create wealth. It's to create an environment in which the entrepreneur can flourish, in which the small business can grow to become a big business. That's the role of government."
To put his words even more plainly: The purpose of government is to create big businesses whose goal, in turn, is to make money. Oh, my.
The distressing implications of such a narrow, avaricious function are legion, but they're not new. We can go back 2,000 years to Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who accurately analyzed some of this in his history of the Roman Empire: "A good government produces citizens distinguished for courage, love of justice and every other good quality; a bad government makes them cowardly, rapacious and the slaves of every foul desire."
Contrast Bush's pitifully restricted vision to what we find, as I say, in our founding documents. The Preamble to the Constitution speaks of creating government "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."
Similarly, the Declaration of Independence asserts that "Governments are instituted" to secure the unalienable rights of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Can you read between those lines to find encouragement of economic prosperity? Of course. Our founders were not blithering dreamers untethered from reality. They knew what we still know -- that a sound economy built on free (but not completely unregulated) markets is vital if political freedoms are to be preserved.
So government clearly must support economic health and its many potential benefits.
But to define government's primary task as the creation of an environment in which the entrepreneurial class is free to launch profitable businesses is to assume the primary purpose of life itself is economic.
No matter what Wall Street and Madison Avenue would have you believe, life is not first about money, and it's about more than acquisitions, zero-coupon bonds, stock futures or off-shore banking.
Life is about relationships and duty, imagination and love, creativity and commitment, sharing and sacrifice, faithfulness, passion and, finally, hope. Does it take economic well-being to foster all of that? Well, that certainly can help. But a strong economy is a means, not the end.
One disturbing aspect of Bush's recent "role of government" remarks is that he has given previous evidence that he grasps a wider vision of life.
For example, in his acceptance speech last year at the Republican National Convention, he spoke of helping people "to live with dignity and hope." And he said this: "The rising generations of this country have our own appointment with greatness. It does not rise or fall with the stock market. It cannot be bought with our wealth. Greatness is found when American character and American courage overcome American challenges."
And in his Inaugural Address, he said he was asking all of us to join him in "a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character." He also said the purpose of government under his watch would be "to make our country more just and generous, to affirm the dignity of our lives and every life."
Was all that just fluff from a speech writer? Maybe, but I don't think so. I just think it's incredibly easy to lose focus, to lose sight of what's really important when the stock market is tanking, when the economy is braking, when nearly everyone says Alan Greenspan is almost as powerful as the president.
And even presidents who want to keep focus on what's really
important seldom get any help from the people they try to govern,
who are too busy working overtime, watching their 401(k) accounts
and maxing out their Visa