Friday, August 29, 2008

What is Government's Role? Progressive Liberty and Barack Obama

Much of my professional work in teaching and writing about Constitutional Law and Constitutional Theory focuses on what is government's role in America. Indeed, as I've discussed here before, the title of this blog, Progressive Liberty, relates to this issue.

First, "Liberty": America was founded, first and foremost, to preserve individual freedom from oppressive government - government must tolerate any personal idea, action or attribute that does no harm to another. America's founding documents - the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - make this point clear: government must leave us alone. And when it does not, the judicial branch is there to correct the situation and preserve our freedom from overreaching government.

Second, "Progressive": This part IS negotiable - in a democratic republic, it is the will of the people what sort of society they will have. So long as the government is not infringing on individual freedom, it can set widely varying policy - anything from a minimalist caretaker state to a more progressive social welfare model of the sort seen in Western Europe (or indeed, something more different still than either of these). I happen to favor the latter - hence, the word "progressive." I believe it's the government's duty to enact humane policy that looks out for people who can't help themselves, and that provides equal opportunity to all - and I'll do what I can to try to influence the political process so that enough like-minded people will vote for representatives who will enact such policies. But if I'm unsuccessful, and we instead get politicians like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney - well, our democracy has only ourselves to blame.

In his acceptance speech earlier tonight at the Democratic Convention, Barack Obama hit the nail on the head for what it is I'm talking about with "progressive liberty." He said:

"Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems. But what it should do, is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm; and provide every child with a decent education. Keep our water clean and our toys safe. Invest in new schools, and in roads, and in science, and technology.

"Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity, not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who is willing to work. That's the promise of America. That we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation. The fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper. I am my sister's keeper.

"That's the promise we need to keep. That's the change we need right now."

This is the president America needs.