Monday, May 4, 2009

The Role of Government in American Society

This is probably not the last post that I will write on the role of government in American society, but with it I hope to cover a couple of major issues. Despite what people claim, the Constitution of the United States is not all that clear when it comes to the role of government in the daily lives of citizens.

A few undeniable truths include that the government has control over defense, security, justice, certain taxes, international affairs, currency, and other related areas. Less clear is the role of government in day-to-day life.

I believe that the US government has the responsibility to ensure what it enshrines in the preamble to the Constitution and in the Declaration of Independence, most specifically, to ensur to all citizens not just Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, but for all citizens to have equal opportunity to achieve Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. As it stands now, this is not the case. The circumstances of one's birth still dominate the chance that you will become successful. Being well off to begin with places you much closer to prosperity than being nearer to the bottom. Being born to the majority group, gives you advantages over minorities. Despite the claims that these biases no longer exist, the evidence suggests otherwise. The FDIC and NAACP both recently began investigating, and in the case of the NAACP suing banks and mortgage lenders over giving sub prime loans to black and Latino families while giving white families with IDENTICAL credit better rates and better deals. When even the financial system, supposedly "just numbers," is biased, it is difficult to claim that more serious discrimination does not exist. Another example of this discrimination is a study that gave two groups of employers identical resumes, one with traditional names (Jim, Steve, Sally, Pamela, etc) and one with non-traditional names traditionally associated with African-Americans. The resumes with traditional names were significantly better received than the alternative resumes with non-traditional names. On top of studies, there is ample evidence showing that women and minorities are paid less for the same work, plain and simple.

This kind of discrimination is most severely compounded, in my opinion, by income. The circumstances of your birth, as mentioned above, do dictate the probability of your success. Despite the examples that inevitably arise when I say that the US does not treat all people as though they are created equal, it is still clear that one has to be exceptional to succeed from the bottom, and much less prodigious to succeed if you start half-way up the mountain with success as the top. At this point we have to ask ourselves whether we value equal access to success and to the fruits of one's labor, whether we consider it a tragedy that some never strive for success because the position into which they are born not only makes it unlikely but teaches them it is unlikely. Even with all the evidence pointing toward the necessity of combating discrimination and lack of equal opportunity, the Supreme Court is currently hearing a challenge to the Voting Rights Act. This act was recently renewed with a unanimous approval from the Senate, and near unanimous from the House because evidence was presented that demonstrated its continued necessity (basically it has a number of provisions designed to prevent unfair or deceptive practices on an institutional scale, such as changing the dates of voting without telling everyone, etc). In other words, Republicans and Democrats saw that it was still important to guarantee the fundamental right of voting to all people and the Supreme Court is hearing a challenge. This case serves to highlight not only our continued disparities, but our willingness to ignore and exacerbate them.

The way I see it is this: as long as people do not have equal access to credit because of their race, equal access to education because of their income, equal access to voting rights (for both of those reasons), then you have effectively abridged the government's duty to ensure for ourselves the rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. We need to face up to the continuing inequality of opportunity which has plagued us for so long and continues to determine the chance of success of an individual based on the circumstances of his/her birth alone.

One of the hallmarks of the New Left as I hope it will become is an emphasis on both equality and personal responsibility simultaneously. Basically, you guarantee that everyone regardless of the circumstances of their birth has as close to an equal shot at success as anyone else, and I will grant you that personal responsibility is the most fair way to judge individuals. Until that time, however, programs designed to level the playing field (not penalize success, just provide the tools and recognition that people should be judged by their potential rather than their current situation) are a necessity. I personally advocate affirmative action based on income (as a stand-in variable for opportunity). A policy of affirmative action, contrary to many conservative arguments, is not racial favoritism, but a policy that encourages and assists qualified underrepresented applicants in achieving admission to universities, jobs, etc. The basic principles of the policy are that A) Diversity is valuable and important in and of itself and B) that not providing equal access to opportunity is the same thing as discrimination and racial favoritism (for the dominant group).

Ensuring equality of opportunity that I believe to be, along with defense, the most important role of the US Government is sorely lacking in our society in spite of the supposed gains we have made since the 1960s in terms of legal protections for minorities and women. When Chief Justice John Roberts decries the use of race for making any decisions, what he is failing to recognize is that race and income daily are used by others to make decisions and can be a major predictor of the liklihood of your success.

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