REMER: Promoting the general welfare

Ever since the Tea Party’s founding, its members have vociferously called for a return to basic principles. When they disingenuously bray about a return to traditional family values and the ideologies of the Founding Fathers, their words mask an irrational hatred toward President Obama and an agenda bent upon overturning decades of progress. But perhaps on Election Day, we should take their advice and examine the Founding Fathers’ words. If we do, we will realize just how radical the Romney-Ryan agenda is.

Take the Constitution, for example. This venerated document, the philosophical basis for our legal system, begins with the resonant phrase “We the People.” The choice of pronouns was intentional. The Founding Fathers, steeped in Locke and Montesquieu, understood social contract theory. They knew full well that any political entity is more than the sum of its parts, that people enter into a social contract to maximize the collective good and that tending to the general welfare is essential to, if not the end goal of, statecraft. When we as individuals unite and sacrifice for the common benefit, we all prosper.

Far from embracing the common good, Romney and his allies pooh-pooh it. They seem to exist in a Randian utopia where community is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals and “public” is a dirty word. When President Obama suggested that no businessman exists in a vacuum and that you can’t simply pull yourself up by the bootstraps, the right assailed him for persecuting so-called job creators. But they have learned nothing from the 2008 meltdown. Rather than questioning the efficacy of surrendering government to corporations and touting privatization as a panacea, they have rushed headlong down the true road to serfdom — namely, the subjugation of the middle class and poor to the interests of the über-rich — all in the service of an extreme and nihilistic individualism.

In his recent book “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” Harvard professor Michael Sandel poignantly comments on the dangers of the marketization of life, chronicling the creeping erosion of democratic norms and values as corporate ideas and values insinuate their way into every facet of our lives. From education to election financing to health care to welfare reform, the logic of the marketplace rules the day. We rarely consider the implications of thinking of government as a business or of education as a product to be marketed. At what cost do we cast aside our compassion for the Social Darwinist gospel of the free market?

Today’s Republican Party views government in a radically different way than the Founding Fathers did. Rather than championing a strong, centralized government to promote economic vibrancy, it believes that government should be an impotent handmaiden to the private sector. Indeed, the public sector doesn’t even seem to exist anymore: both Obama and Romney claim that government doesn’t create jobs, an utterly nonsensical assertion. Just look at the millions of firefighters, policemen, teachers and civil servants employed by — guess who? — the government. When conservatives grudgingly acknowledge the public sector, it is the target of their animus: Having a tough time finding a decent job with benefits? Blame those teachers, sitting pretty with their healthcare and pensions; don’t blame the businesses who refuse to pay a living wage.

At any rate, according to the Republicans, government has no business improving people’s lives. As their idol Ronald Reagan quipped, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Hurricane Sandy has clearly disproved this notion, but the Republicans also seem to believe that citizens have no responsibility towards the government and their fellow citizens. Their refusal to support tax increases, even for millionaires, is one example. Another is Ryan’s mean-spirited budget, which converts Medicare into a voucher system and slashes education funding and Social Security. The social safety net, a concrete acknowledgment of our common existence, would be essentially vaporized under such a plan. Ultimately, what is at stake in this election is nothing less than America’s political philosophy. We can retain our commitment to the common good and individualism tempered by community, or we can discard it in favor of a radical, selfish atomism. John Donne famously declared that, “No man is an island.” The Founding Fathers, having “mutually pledged” their lives “to each other” to defeat a mighty and implacable foe, certainly agreed with Donne. One only hopes that we still do.

Scott Remer is a freshman in Pierson College. Contact him at scott.remer@yale.edu .

This piece is part of the News’ Election Day Forum. Click here to read more.

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