Monday, October 27, 2008

Government as Socialism, or How Obama Got His Law Groove On

The argument of the day seems to revolve around the ideas of what a government actually does and the conception of negative liberty, of which a lot of people misunderstand. Jonathan Chait at the New Republic's blog makes the point that the basic function of a government is to take money from people and give it to other people. To complicate things a little beyond the simplicity of Chait's statement, government uses taxes and tariffs to fund government infrastructure, national defense, the court system and a myriad of other things like social services (Social Security, Medicare/Medicade and the like).
Now the basic things like police forces, fire departments, and other emergency services have to try and apply their work to everyone equally, no matter how much they pay in taxes, or at least that's the idea. Dallas has a serious shortage of police officers and trying to raise the needed revenue is difficult without having to raise some form of taxes, usually property taxes. That those who live on properties with a higher value pay a higher tax is just a basic thing. And then the money is redistributed to the police department and applied in a somewhat equal way to everyone.
What has spurred the argument over 'wealth redistribution' today has been the pulling of an NPR interview of Sen. Obama in 2001, several years before his election to the U.S. Senate. In the interview, Sen. Obama expressed the view that if one wanted, one could make the argument that the judical branch (re: the courts) could work as an avenue for affirmative economic equality. But really, why would one want to do that? The conservative punditry (and I hate to pick on Shane Vander Hart at the Culture11 blog, but well, I needed a conservative example and I'd rather give them the traffic versus blowhards like Drudge) has decided to latch onto specific parts of this interview as a means of arguing that Sen. Obama favors the courts legislating economic equality and redistribution.
Of course this is bunk as Chait's collegue, Cass Sunstein, argues. Sen. Obama, while saying it was possible to make the court-oriented argument, it's not a very good one and, more to the point, shows where the civil rights movement has gone wrong in relying on the courts to resolve every civil rights issue. Specifically, as Marc Ambinder notes, Sen. Obama was referring to the case of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez where the issue at stake was education funding.
It's here though that Sen. Obama makes a point about the Constitution that few people, particularly the screaming parts of the punditry, understand. The Constitution, Sen. Obama points out, is a document of negative liberties. It's a Lockean idea that the most liberty comes from the least amount of government interference in an individual's life. More than that, it also means that the Constitution only specifies the limits of government interference in concern to certain rights and is not an exhaustive list of every liberty an individual is born with. In other words, whether the Constitution says it or not, a liberty exists, like the right to privacy, and does not need an amendment to assure its existence, since such liberties remain in the hands of the states and individuals, unless otherwise specified.
Both Ambinder and Matt Yglesias argue that Sen. Obama not only expressed a view contrary to the liberal positivist view of the courts, but supported a view that many conservatives did during the 80s and 90s--that the courts are the wrong place to make serious changes to the economic inequality in the U.S. As Ambinder continues, he makes the point that the conservative response to the 2001 interview has now elevated the presidential race into a referendum on conservative ideology when Sen. Obama has steered clear of making that part of his campaign platform. Thus, if Sen. McCain does lose on Nov. 4th, along with many of his conservative collegues, conservative ideology will suffer a serious but self-inflicted blow.
Redistributing wealth is not an anti-American nor socialist viewpoint in and of itself. As I pointed out earlier, it's a basic function of government. What Sen. Obama has argued instead is for legislative and executive powers being brought to bear on economic inequality versus relying on the courts that Sen. Obama claims are unable to fully deal with the issue, nor it is their place to. Tempest in a teapot? Yes. But also a sign of how the Republicans are grasping at straws as quickly as they can. Desperation can lead to screwy arguments and this is one of them.