People don’t often react to policy ideas with full consideration of the principles involved. They don’t assign much time for consideration of public policy (which is one reason government should be limited), so when an issue does come within the field of their awareness, they tend to apply other or partial principles.
Thus: The principle that we should help the disadvantaged and vulnerable becomes an imperative that government should take money from some people and give it to others. The question of taxing the rich or corporations becomes a question of whether they can afford it, by some subjective measure, without regard to the right of voters to take it or the effects on the economy. The level of income or benefits that employees receive becomes an assessment of whether that level of income and benefits will be helpful to them, rather than a measurement of business reality and a recognition of people’s right to order their own affairs. And so on.
In Massachusetts, legislators are considering asking voters whether they would like to take money away from their wealthier neighbors through a constitutional amendment, for no better reason than that they have the income. The Rhode Island legislature has been “negotiating” with itself and with a handful of special interests whether it should take away even more of Rhode Islanders’ right to come to their own mutually agreeable terms for employment.
Locally, too, the questions come up. This budget cycle in Tiverton, controversy arose over the Budget Committee’s decision not to fund taxpayer gifts to a few private charities and a couple of fall/winter events. Both are things that communities certainly should do, but the question that gets lost in the public debate is who should do them. Charity ceases to confer its moral benefits on the giver when it is compulsory, and it is at the same time corruptive of those who force the transfer as well as the receiver. Meanwhile, community events become divisive rather than unitive when they amount to one group of residents forcing everybody else to pay for things that it wants to do. (As it turned out, a local gun shop raffled a gun, ammo, and some accessories to cover the cost of the events.)
Throughout history, some societies have accepted a ruler as the embodiment of the people, often claimed to be divine. In practice, that meant the people were sublimated to a dictator and had to make their own dreams and consciences secondary to his or hers.
For a long time, now, we’ve been moving back toward that notion of society, albeit with some degree of influence in our representation. Rhode Island has arguably reached the point that the method of election is so rigged that the actual representation is an illusion, but even with direct votes for expenditures and debt, we’re still making those who vote “no,” but still must pay, secondary to those who vote “yes,” and sometimes don’t have to pay.
In the degree that government actually has a role (and that degree isn’t zero), some amount of this sublimation is inevitable. We can’t require every decision to be unanimous. However, we’re clearly too far toward the other extreme and need to begin giving civic principles their due.