January 14, 2011
Paul Krugman had a column in today’s New York Times that helped me put a growing feeling into words. He pointed out that the conversation about the appropriate role of government has changed in recent years from one in which everyone basically assumed that government has some kind of role in being a mechanism for caring for the weakest in an affluent society, to one in which some people assume that government’s role should be severely limited and there is no ‘social program’ that can be considered legitimate.
I remember when Ronald Reagan started campaigning on the basis that ‘government is the problem’. He, as I remember it, wanted a limited role for government, but he also talked about the weakest in society. He was very taken (as was Margaret Thatcher) with the monetarist theories of Milton Friedman and he talked about how wealth would ‘trickle down’ to the neediest and everyone’s fortunes would be raised. It was pretty clear then and is even clearer now that monetarism is no more a magic theory than any version of the Keynesianism that it sought to replace. BUT, at least he seemed to believe that there is some necessity in a civilized society that the neediest have some kind of safety net.
What I hope to hear in our current debates is some concern for those who are weakest among us. It is conceivable to me that a Christian could see a very limited role for the federal government. What is not conceivable is that they would see no communal or regulatory role for caring for the weakest among us. I think about our traditions of stewardship, Israel’s gleaning laws allowing for the wayfarer and stranger to eat, prophetic concern for widows and orphans and on and on. It seems to me that we can have a legitimate debate about the appropriate level of ‘community’ at which such needs might be addressed (provided that the discussion also includes the appropriate level and source of resources). What I near now is a kind of implicit individualism that, whatever its intent, sounds angry and greedy and selfish to my ear. “Keep the government’s hand out of my pocket. My money is mine. Don’t regulate business. Leave everything up to individuals. If people choose to live on the streets, then that is their choice.”
Bipartisanship and civil discourse depend upon some common vision. Paul Krugman does not believe we have it. Is this not a place where conservative and progressive Christians could both find and model common ground?