On 15 March, 2019, The New York Times editorial board published a piece about “Why Does the U.S. Tolerate So Much Risk”. Or, at least, that was the headline. The actual editorial was not quite so general or philosophical: its focus was specifically on why the U.S. government’s approach to regulation of business — as opposed to the the general citizenry’s cultural approach to risk tolerance overall — was much less strict than the “precautionary principle” upon which (for example) European regulators nominally operate; and, notwithstanding the title of the piece, it was really less an explanation of why the U.S. might be different from other parts of the world than a lament that such difference exists.
The editorial was written in the context of the (in their opinion) belated move by the President and the FAA to ground the American fleet of Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines disaster. And, although (and to be fair) they threw a bone to the argument that there might, in some cases, be good reasons for the American approach to regulation (“Precautionary regulation imposes real economic costs. In some cases, the more permissive stance of the United States may well be justified.”), the overall tone of the editorial clearly communicated the opposite — that it disapproved of the fact that, as the summary under the title suggested, “The United States has a higher threshold than other developed nations for allowing corporations to risk the health and safety of consumers.”
Since the editorial did not actually delve into the reasons for taking one approach to regulation over another or when, indeed, the “more permissive stance of the United States” might or might not be justified, it amounted to a situational summary more than an explanation or an argument. The readers, in their online comments, opted to fill the gap by providing explanations of their own and were nearly universally of a single mind: greedy capitalists had captured the machinery of government to use for their own ends and cared not a whit about the welfare of the American citizenry. The end. Typical stuff from NYT readers, nearly impossible to rebut in any way that would connect with minds already committed to that vision of malfeasance and, certainly, not in the couple of hundred words available to anyone who might choose to respond. My inclination was to let it pass.
But one commenter, writing under screen name “Drspock”, “triggered” me. And letting it pass was no longer an option…
The preamble to the U.S. Constitution lists the objectives that the framers were trying to achieve by creating a government: “…to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty…” All of those are valid goals for a national government but they are not guaranteed to be in synchrony with each other and may, often, be in conflict. Rather obviously, when they are in conflict they must be balanced against each other, with proper emphases on their relative importances, in considering whether to enact or withhold any particular law or public policy.
Yet, over and over again, I hear people asserting that policies of government benevolence they favor, generally in the form of some kind of social insurance or mitigation for perceived inequalities, are not only justified but demanded by the principles of the American founding because the Constitution declares that the purpose of government — the primary or, in some instances, the sole purpose of government, to be pursued at the expense of all others — is to fullfill the charge from the preamble that it “promote the general welfare.”
Or, as mis-quoted by “Drspock”, that it “provide for the general welfare.”
That assertion is one of my personal “triggers”. It induces in me an irrational (and perhaps unjustified) level of anger.
As a pointy-headed intellectual, I believe that ideas matter and that bad ideas, when widely believed and acted upon, can be dangerous. As a writer, and as both a student of and lover of language, I believe that words matter and that words misunderstood or misinterpreted lead to the flourishing of bad ideas. The American founding fathers, based on the historical record, seem also to have believed both of those things. It may seem pedantic to obsess over this but, if we take words and ideas seriously, we must acknowledge that:
- The Constitutional charge to “promote the general welfare” is but one of several goals of the federal government; and there is no particular reason, from an honest reading of the text, to presume that it should be considered the primary one.
- On the contrary, the words used to describe the various goals imply that the general welfare might well be considered subsidiary to others in the list. The words used to describe what the government should do about those other things — “form” a union, “establish” justice, “insure” tranquility, “provide for” defense, and “secure” liberty — all have a structural unity: they stipulate the end-point of the action. When you “form” a union, there is an implied guarantee that the union has been fully formed. When you “establish” justice and “insure” tranquility and “secure” liberty, there is an implied guarantee that you end up with justice and tranquility and liberty. When you “provide for” the common defense, there is an implied guarantee that, in the end, defense may not be assured but it has, at the least, been adequately provided for. The words don’t imply “give it your best effort” but “keep at it until it is done.” To “promote” welfare, on the other hand, does not imply any guarantees. Welfare “promoted” is not welfare assured. “Promotion” describes effort, not effect.
- The “general” welfare is not the same thing as “individual” welfare. In many cases they are related — a society in which most individuals are in peril or distress will not usually be a society that may be considered “generally” well. But the charge to promote the “general welfare” is exactly that: an exhortation to tend to the big-picture needs of society overall, not necessarily to equalize the well being of individual citizens or groups within society to any lesser or greater degree.
- Before there was the American Constitution, there was the American Declaration of Independence. The Constitution created a specific government and included a statement of objectives for that government to achieve. The Declaration of Independence, in contrast, established not a government but a Nation, and included a more general statement: that the overall purpose for the existence of government — of any government — was to secure individual rights against the predations of those who would usurp them, be they foreign despots, domestic criminals, or the self-interested mob — the “tyranny of the majority”. The goals stipulated in the preamble to the Constitution must always be interpreted within that broader context: a government which undermines its primary purpose in the pursuit of some other practical goal has lost its fundamental legitimacy.
My reaction to “Drspock” was prompted by his bold assertion that the purpose of government was to “provide for the general welfare.” However, having gotten going, I also addressed the more general question of why Americans, unrelated to “corporations” or “greed” or “capitalism”, might be more risk tolerant than other peoples of the world. Alas, the length constraints applied to NYT commenters prevented me from addressing either question in as much detail as I would have liked — the posted response was 5 characters shy of the maximum allowed. You can follow the link (above) to the comment on the NYT web-site until it falls off their queue. I have also reproduced it, below.
15 March 2019
Actually, the phrase — from the preamble to the Constitution, which does not have the force of law — is to “…promote the general welfare…”, not to “provide for” it. The difference is significant. And according to the Declaration of Independence — the statement of principle upon which the country, if not the government, was founded — the primary purpose of government is “…to secure these rights…” to “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
That is why America is more risk tolerant than other countries and societies in the world: because to guarantee security, you must always sacrifice some amount of liberty; and in assessing that sacrifice, Americans have traditionally factored liberty higher in the equation than have most other peoples.
We do many things to make the lives of children as safe as we can. Most of those things involve severely restricting what they may and may not do, what they may and may not see, who they may and may not interact with, and, often, what they may and may not think. Children may be safe, but in almost every way they are completely unfree.
That may be appropriate for children. It is wholly inappropriate for adults and is not they way most adults would choose to live.
“Reasonable” regulation may be good and necessary. But there is honest and heartfelt disagreement about what is and is not “reasonable” that has less to do with “greed” or “capitalism” than with a basic desire for liberty and autonomy.
© 2019, Augustus P. Lowell