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Are We a Society?

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When asked about the impact of her draconian policies on British society, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is reported to have said, "There is no such thing as society."

The current U.S. budget confrontation raises the same issue: Is there such a thing as an American society? The Oxford dictionary defines society as: "the sum of human conditions and activity regarded as a whole functioning interdependently" and as "the customs and organization of an ordered community."

The current confrontation between parties and ideologies is over the role of government. But even more deeply it is a foundational disagreement over whether we are a society, a community, or whether we are a collection of individuals inhabiting the same geographical space.

If we are all "in this together," then we share more than just an interest in collective security. And if we have collective interests, the instrument by which we pursue and promote those interests is the national government, not Wall Street or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

As we learned in 1929 and 2008, markets can fail, usually through greed and lack of regulation. Although a rising tide lifts all boats, a falling tide lowers all boats, except for the gilded yachts.

The Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich-Tea Party revolutions all called into question whether we are a society and therefore whether we act through our national government to pursue our common interests. Though virtually all mature democracies have basically resolved this question decades ago, the people of the United States seem unable to do so. Many Americans continue to believe we can have the public services a very large majority wants without paying very much for them. Thus the "waste, fraud, and abuse" of the Reagan years. Or a recurring vocal minority continues to argue that we should do away with those services altogether and devil-take-the-hindmost.

It would be an interesting, though destructive, experiment to see how many Americans would like the nation the Tea Party seeks to construct.

The current, and perpetually recurring, confrontation is only symbolically about "spending." Public programs flow from policies. Policies flow from partisan ideologies. Ideologies flow from political philosophies. So long as the question of whether we are a society, a national community as Franklin Roosevelt believed, remains contested, so will budget wars continue carried out by factions waving one banner or another mostly decrying the evils of government.

Thomas Jefferson wanted our government to do only those necessary things that individuals could not do for themselves. That is quite a large territory. It includes transportation systems, public safety and judicial systems, public education, and national security, among many other undertakings. The real confrontation is over the social safety net constructed between the age of Roosevelt and the age of Johnson. Overwhelmingly, the American people wish to maintain this safety net. They simply do not wish to bear its costs, nor do they wish to accept its demise, which would involve taking our grandparents back into our homes.

In a perfect world we would have a great debate throughout the nation, not just in Washington, over the issue of whether we are a society, a national community, and, if so, what role we wish the national government to bear in maintaining that community. Alas, we do not live in a perfect world. So we let our elected officials struggle over budget cuts that are but symbols of our deeper dilemma and our unresolved definition of who we really are. Two hundred and twenty years should have been enough time to have resolved this question.

Please visit Senator Hart's blog at Matters of Principle.