A very dear friend sent me a pundit’s article on the role of government and asked me what I thought. This is my answer (slightly edited for better reading):

On principle I agreed with the overall message about the role of government, even though I hated the spin the pundit put on it (just like most pundits do). Being a disciple of Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman it pains me to see government expand its role to so many areas. However, I also need to point out that “the government” should be nothing more than the mechanism by which the elected representatives of the people execute on their mandates, which constitute the “common good” as determined by the people.

I believe there are some mandates that define the role of government:

• The Defense Mandate – Defend the country and its physical borders from aggression

• The Steward Mandate – Guard and protect the common and shared resources of the country

• The Enforcement Mandate – Enforce the laws the people themselves established and agreed to obey

• The Civil Rights Mandate – Protect the individual rights of each from each other – but not themselves

• The Commerce Mandate – Regulate commerce so it is conducted within clear boundaries and laws

• The Maintenance Mandate – Invest in infrastructure and keep it in working condition

The role of government is not to distribute wealth, but to allocate resources the people chose to contribute for the common good, through the tax system, in an efficient and consistent manner. It’s not to determine each person’s needs and help meet them, but rather to ensure the playground is fair and honest (as fair as it can be with humans involved) so that those who want to build their skills and find solutions to their needs can do so.

Unfortunately it’s not always that clear. Healthcare and education are interesting areas because they don’t fit clearly in one mandate, but actually span many of them. They are not exactly commerce, but have commerce aspects, they are not exactly a clearly defined and bound common good, like defense which revolves around borders and land, either but they have commons aspects to them, etc.

If we let the free market decide the fate of a company, as we should, the worst that can happen is that a company, or a market segment will go bankrupt and some people will lose their jobs. Unfortunately, if we let the free market decide healthcare based on economic reasons, people will die, or at best have a miserable life. I am sure I don’t want government deciding who lives and dies, or at what point of disease we need to step in, or give up, but I am also sure I don’t want every health decision left to market economic drivers. The answer is somewhere between the two and it constantly shifts depending on where we are on the polarity cycle of less government-more freedom, more government-less freedom. This link is to a simple Presentation on Polarities and there is also a great book on systemic management of polarities if you are interested.

Right now we are at a shift/transition point with healthcare. I am sure the Affordable Care Act is not the complete solution. But I am also not sure I heard about anyone who has, or has come up with what could pass for a complete solution. The mud-slinging contest between the Democrats and the Republicans is only making things worse for all of us and generates enough noise to distract us from actually coming up with a comprehensive solution, let alone one that can handle the natural ebb and flow of a polarity so potentially divisive as healthcare.

Education is another one of those polarity ecosystems. We compete as a nation based on our economic power. Economic power in today’s age is driven, not by size or access to natural resources, but from knowledge/education and the ability of the citizens of a nation to leverage size and natural resources. As we move deeper into the post-industrial age, a nation’s value accumulates through intellectual property development. Without a coordinated educational framework, we run the risk of losing our competitiveness as a nation when our workforce remains uneducated and cannot compete on a global scale. However, at the same time an educational framework driven by a political or religious agendas, rather than science and technology introduces the same risk because it can diminish the focus on the market and competitive objectives, or worse become nothing more than a propaganda and indoctrination machine for whoever is in power at any given time. So education is another one of those systemic polarities that needs to be managed.

You ask me what I think. I wish I had an answer but there is no single answer! Silver bullets only work on Werewolves and Vampires, and those species only live in comic books and sci-fi movies. There is also no permanent answer. There is only the ability to adapt as the negatives from one approach accumulate and the smooth migration to the other side of the polarity.

I do think however the problem with government is that it has become an entrenched bureaucracy that, first and foremost, looks out for its own well-being and self-preservation, rather than focusing on the mandates, or being the Steward of the Commons that we all aspire for it to be. Maybe the answer is to re-think the structure of our government. Maybe we need to build polarity management triggers into the various functions of government so, when they start drifting towards the negative side of the continuum we automatically push them towards the other end of the polarity spectrum.

But then again, what do I know. I am just a poor immigrant from Cyprus who became an American By Choice and now ponders what is happening to the country I fell in love with.