My brother’s keeper?

Thousands of years ago, the question was asked: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The differing answers to that question today continue a fundamental conflict of values among those who answer “yes,” “no,” or “sometimes.” That conflict is very evident in the political arena, where part of the discussion revolves around the appropriate role of government in addressing the ills of society.


In determining its answer to the ancient question, the corporate conscience of a nation is a product of all the individual consciences, which vary in their stage of development. And just as the individual conscience does battle with our lower instincts, such as the love of money, so does the conscience of a nation.


Slavery, for example, was practiced from the founding of our country because of its monetary returns — notwithstanding the declaration that all persons are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights. That shameful practice was outlawed in Great Britain 31 years before it was outlawed in the United States. Today we similarly lag most of the world in abolishing capital punishment.


Our democratic system of government exists for the people, not vice versa. Ideally at least, our government functions to secure the rights and well-being of all the people: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The United States of America was constituted specifically to “establish Justice” and “promote the general Welfare.” The sacred documents of our country loudly proclaim that the business of government is people.


 Through the more than two centuries that our country has developed and the population has grown, the affairs of society have become increasingly complex, generating greater demand for government regulation to promote efficient functioning. There was a time in our history, for example, when fire protection was not a government function but a private subscription service. Today we consider fire protection of life and property one of the essential roles of local government.


Differing viewpoints on the role of government were highlighted in two recent op-ed columns: “This country needs to take part in a religious debate” by Bob Parazin (Tri-City Herald, July 29) and “Social ills our responsibility, not the government’s” by Maria St. Hilaire (Tri-City Herald, August 19).


Mr. Parazin champions broadening the spectrum of issues in the national political fora that are considered “moral” or “religious” to include poverty, corporate ethics, domestic violence and war. Ms. St. Hilaire, on the other hand, favors the existing limited range of such issues — abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research, contends that government should not address social problems, and particularly targets “our elephantine social bureaucracy.”


“Bureaucracy” is a legitimate issue in itself, but one distinctly separate from “values.” The values of our country, encoded in its laws, are implemented by the rules established for departments (that is, bureaucracies) of the government to carry out. One could equally take aim at the gargantuan military bureaucracy, which has 700,000 civilian employees — ten times that of the Department of Health and Human Services. The Pentagon itself is still the largest-capacity office building in the world, housing some 26,000 workers.


Where Ms. St. Hilaire does go astray is by assigning Mr. Parazin’s moral issues to works of charity, whereas they are truly issues of justice. Wife and child beating, for example, may have been taboo subjects hidden behind closed doors several generations ago, but today domestic violence is appropriately within the purview of our criminal justice system.


Moreover, “Justice”combined with “the general Welfare” is not limited to criminal justice, but includes civil justice, social justice, economic justice, etc. And beyond justice, even the president gives at least lip service to compassion.


I share Ms. St. Hilaire’s frustration that “voters have no power to stop practices they vehemently disagree with” in the way departments of government carry out policy. The torture and indefinite detention of prisoners is a current example that comes to mind.


In this regard, it is also important to recognize that the government structures we establish through law can further the cause of justice or thwart it. The executive branch, likewise, possesses great power to thwart the legislated will of the people.


There can be no “last word” in the developing conscience of our nation. Perhaps the first word was that of George Washington, who once posed the question: “Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity [i.e., well-being] of a nation with its virtue?”


~ Jim Stoffels

14 September 2006


Jim Stoffels is a retired physicist and former member of the Richland (Wash.) City Council.


© Copyright 2006 by Jim Stoffels