EspañolWe no longer look up with respect to our executive branch, with affection to our legislators, or with duty to our magistrates. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center reveals that only 19 percent of US Americans trust the federal government to do what is right most of the time, and only 28 percent have a favorable view of the federal government. Views of Congress have reached a historically negative level with only 21 percent expressing a favorable opinion. The Supreme Court’s favorability is also down, as only 48 percent have a favorable opinion of the justices.
A Gallup poll is even more admonishing, showing “a great deal of trust” in the executive branch of only 18 percent, 6 percent for the legislative branch and 13 percent for the judicial branch. Approval ratings in the single-digits and teens have not always been the case. For instance, erstwhile Gallup presidential statistics show average approval ratings of 65 percent for President Eisenhower, a Republican, and 70.1 percent for President Kennedy, a Democrat.
The current distrust of the federal government does not bode well for the country. Without a core level of public trust, democratic governments face pronounced difficulties carrying out their basic functions and are often unable to implement difficult economic and fiscal reforms.
So what explains this troubling trend? Individual rights are the organizing principle of the US political framework. We do not charge government with curtailing our rights, but with better securing our rights. Thus, at the most fundamental level, government must be judged by how effectively it protects and defends individual freedoms.
Political ideas are the application of philosophical ideas, and in recent decades, political action has become more about enacting social ideologies than responding to specific needs that threaten our rights. In particular, progressive thinking argues that the coercive power of government must be used to directly address social problems. Progressive activists in all branches of government seek to employ the weight of government to pursue their ideological agendas. But it is not often acknowledged that, by definition, an expanded government requires diminished liberty.
For instance, we all want to live in a just society, but charging government with bringing about a predetermined distribution of holdings, can only be accomplished by violating individual rights and continuously interfering with our liberties. If under the logic of some utilitarian felicific calculus, certain goods are to be guaranteed to some individuals, then other individuals must be coerced to pay for those goods.
This philosophical conception of rights is inherently discriminatory requiring that the state treat some individuals differently from others. Even if it were possible to achieve, for one instant, a desired distribution of holdings, such distribution would immediately begin to break down by individuals choosing to save in different measures, or to exchange goods and services with each other. Thus an enforced distribution of holdings is an unachievable goal.
In addition, if we do indeed need a large, intrusive, coercive, paternalistic state, what does that tell us about our capacity as individuals to take care of ourselves? The US conception of a just society is one in which the citizenry is assured the freedom to choose how to shape their own future unforced by government interference. Our shared belief in equality should ineludibly lead us to a politics of individual, not collective, rights, since as individuals we do not accept on faith the superior wisdom of others.
Over the decades, as government has expanded, politicians have necessarily diminished our rights with every new government program, and they continue to do so. They have forgotten that the statesman’s task is not to drive society toward some particular ultimate end of their design. In the US tradition, the statesman’s task is to create and constantly sustain a space in which the citizenry may exercise their freedoms and enjoy the benefits of their labors.
If government exists to protect our freedom to choose, then our political class has failed us by seeking to gratify their ideological schemes at the expense of our rights. It is no wonder that they have lost our trust and respect.
This article first appeared in Spanish in El Nuevo Herald.