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The Trouble With Public Policy

Modern American politics is presented currently as Red States vs. Blue States. Historians might record that it has it origins in television news coverage of presidential elections, but perhaps a simpler explanation exists and it was from the roots of Rock 'em-Sock 'em Robots that this bind weed sprouted. Regardless, conservative or liberal labels mean little and the parties that lay claim to one or the other of the ideologies do not in reality adhere to either of them. It has boiled down to Red or Blue as identifiers for people holding certain political or even social viewpoints. Of course what is of concern to observers is not that there are two or more sides that disagree about fundamental issues. What is of concern is the intensity of animosity between them. If such intense hostility really exists and is not merely an insignificant phenomenon journalists use to gain viewers, then the United States of America is on the cusp of internal cataclysm.

ABC recently aired a very special 20/20 (not to be confused by a very special Growing Pains) hosted by George Stephanopoulos that examined the "State of the Union," wherein they concluded that the United States is so deeply divided because of extremist elements on both sides that prescribe to views and commit acts that split an otherwise united citizenry. People migrate to communities that share their values, they consume "shout T.V." and talk radio, follow polarizing church leaders and community activists who make their living by fueling provocative debate, all of which create deeper divisions and more intense feelings.

Many pundits will suggest that in order to heal this rent nation, compromise must be reached. The two sides must learn to stop talking past each other and open a true dialogue so that public policy can begin to mend the rift. Government can provide the answer. Yes, politics is the means by which Americans select their government, but if political debate were less emotional, then citizens would be able to make informed decisions based on issues, and once votes are cast based on issues not on mere rhetoric, then good public policy will be enacted to unify the nation. It is possible for the government to step in with the correct combination of policies to make everyone happy and the citizenry could live in peace and harmony where everyone has according to her or his needs, and everyone gives according to . . .

But alas, while George and the gang at ABC are correct in concluding that people desire to live in communities with similar values and tune into media that will tell them what they want to hear in the first place, they, as well as so many in this modern state-worshipping society, fall well short of the mark in believing that the answer lies in a good balance of public policy. Rather, the answer lies in less public policy. Ever since McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Civil War, the New Deal, civil rights legislation, and recently the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, an increasing amount of power has been granted to the federal government, and almost every issue on the agenda in the twenty-first century seemingly has a solution in the U.S. Congress. One cannot tune into the major media without hearing some expert in some field arguing in favor of "national standards" or uniformity of policy. Even within states this is the case. In Colorado the newly instituted smoking ban came about in part because some communities had enacted their own bans while others had not. The argument was then proffered that in order to make the "playing field" amongst bars and restaurants more level throughout the state, a statewide ban should be instituted.

Since its establishment the government (at whatever level) has opted to insert itself into more and more areas of people's lives. It should not be surprising then, that battles to win elections or to pass or defeat legislation are increasingly heated and angry. Sadly, it is in extremely rare cases that either of the two major parties – or any parties for that matter – submits that no public policy should be instituted concerning a given issue. Rather, they argue that their policy is the best policy.

While there are numerous public policy areas that demonstrate the Reds and the Blues ardently battling for their alternative over the other's, education and marriage pose two striking examples. These are two issues about which people need not have comprehensive understanding of economics or foreign affairs in order to possess passionate beliefs. These are issues that are deeply imbedded in people's personal and family lives.

Educating children, at one time the responsibility of local communities, is more often than not now under the watchfulness of more intrusive state governments as well as the ever more meddling federal government. This leads to national debates over issues such as the teaching of evolution versus creation. There is no reason why this should be a national debate. If a school board says that only one will be taught or neither will be taught or both will be taught, this should be of no concern to those outside of that district. Parents within a district can then opt to remove their children from those schools or accept the teaching presented. In an ideal world of individually operated schools, one would not even have to go out of the district, but merely trek down the street to find a school that offers the preferred teaching on the issue. Why is it that in the United States of the twenty-first century five different Christian denominations, a Synagogue and a Mosque can exist within three miles of one another with virtually no turmoil, yet K-12 education must be uniform not only within the community but within the entire nation? It may well be that there is, in theory, a separation of church from state. Thus, at least up until recently, religious organizations are not corrupted by government and the desire for uniformity.

Marriage is also a public policy question that tears apart the Reds and the Blues. One side wants man and wife to be emblazoned upon the Constitution while the other demands recognition from those who find it immoral. Of course the debate would be diffused entirely if it were not for myriad civil rights laws that are in place to "protect" people from "arbitrary discrimination." If individuals were free to treat homosexuals however they felt best (it should go without saying that such treatment must be short of physical harm should individuals prescribe to a warped world view asserting that punching a gay man is the best way to treat him), then the debate would not have to occur in public policy. As a business owner, the market would determine who one might hire as an employee. If the business owner makes a bad financial decision by hiring a heterosexual who is less qualified, then the market will adjust accordingly. However, the United States is light-years from having such a liberty-minded policy. Therefore, if the decision must be made by the government, then instead of amending the constitution to ban gay-marriage, why not amend the constitution to state that full faith and credit does not extend into the realm of marriage, and thus truly leave it up to the states (or better yet, communities) to decide for themselves. Then people could vote with their feet and live in the vicinity of like-minded individuals with little to no concern for what happens elsewhere.

Of course these are just a couple of the issues that are bandied about by the Reds and Blues these days. The constant threat of nationalized health-care should be of the greatest concern. Health-care directly concerns the individual's body. If personal health becomes an issue of public policy (as it increasingly is with smoking, vending machine offerings, and content of KFC chicken) then more and more lifestyle choices will be decided in the public sphere, not individually. Until the Reds and the Blues abandon the idea of national standards on issues of such personal matters the people of the United States should be in constant fear of 50% plus one utilizing the monopoly of State power to impose strict lifestyle choices on the 50% minus one. Make no mistake; the battle to become that majority will be bloody.

July 11, 2006