This question is at the heart of the great debate: Is the government an agreement between the people, or is it a coercive force that dictates what the people do? In other words, is government simply common ground that everyone participates in together, or is government lodged in some exterior ground that rains commands down on individuals and communities?
Not surprisingly, the Left and Right seem to have different views of this very crucial theme. Those on the Left typically see government as the former while those on the Right see it as the latter. What this means is that the Left will be more accepting of government action, because it is assumed that this action is the right thing to do for everyone and that everyone benefits. Those on the Right, meanwhile, assume that government action is is not necessarily the right thing to do for everyone and that only a few benefit while the rest suffer. As such, the Right are typically wary of government action.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explains with clarity:
In [a particular] worldview, the government is just the natural expression of our national community, and the place where we all join hands to pursue the common good. Or to borrow a line attributed to Representative Barney Frank, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”
Many conservatives would go this far with Frank: Government is one way we choose to work together, and there are certain things we need to do collectively that only government can do.
But there are trade-offs as well, which liberal communitarians don’t always like to acknowledge. When government expands, it’s often at the expense of alternative expressions of community, alternative groups that seek to serve the common good. Unlike most communal organizations, the government has coercive power — the power to regulate, to mandate and to tax. These advantages make it all too easy for the state to gradually crowd out its rivals. The more things we “do together” as a government, in many cases, the fewer things we’re allowed to do together in other spheres.
This plays out almost poetically in the newly minted regulations and mandates of the Obama administration’s health care reform. Duthat again:
The new health care law requires that all employer-provided insurance plans cover contraception, sterilization and the morning-after (or week-after) pill known as ella, which can work as an abortifacient.
The rules apply to all institutions, even those which, by religious adherence, do not propagate contraception and abortion, such as Catholic charities and hospitals. This is quintessential government action, and, not surprisingly, it is seen almost diametrically by those on either side of the culture divide. The Left embrace this action as a simple extension of our agreed moral standards. The Right condemn the action as an intrusion into private affairs and infringement on religious freedom.
Who is right in this matter?
To be sure, they both have valid points. Those on the Right claim that they have the right to practice their religion and provide health services to those in need without interference or dictation from the government. Those on the Left, however, see how religious hospitals are basically secular institutions which take funds from the government without which they would not be able to operate. In their view, these hospitals are part of the ‘agreed common ground’, and should thus obey the spokesmen of that common ground when those spokesmen issue new dictates.
What must be considered is the fact that government action has made it nearly impossible for any organization to operate outside of the purview of the government, the ‘agreed common ground’ that the Left so champion. As Douthat explains:
It’s pretty hard to run a hospital if you don’t accept payments from Medicaid and Medicare, or a college if you refuse to enroll students who are subsidized by Pell Grants. And I suppose that one could construct an argument in which any entity that takes advantage of the tax exclusion for employer-provided health insurance is implicitly taking taxpayer money, or something like that.
On the other hand, those on the Right see it as a distinct infringement on religious freedom as well as of personal industry, in the direction of which these institutions have dedicated their services. They want to provide health services for those in need. To do so in the modern world, it has become essential to take government funding (the case of Medicare alone makes it necessary). And so government has made it impractical not to be a part of the ‘agreed common ground’, and so everyone is obliged to take part. The common ground is common, then, not because everyone agrees to be a part of it voluntarily, but rather because those in power have made it undesirable to be outside of it.
To take an extreme example: The state government can say that it is illegal to practice religion, and threaten to arrest and torture anyone who does so. As a result, most will rationally fall in line and follow the orders. The result will look like consensus and a swelling agreed common ground of secularism. But under the surface, this consensus is a lie.