Choices are inevitable.
In our world of unlimited desires and scarce resources, we do not have money for everything we want. If we spend extra money for schools, economic development or roads, we cannot spend it for health care, conservation or sidewalks. We cannot borrow our way out of this dilemma, for we borrow only from ourselves and we must eventually pay.
It is a given that we all want our public money to be spent carefully and well, without fraud or excess, only where it is needed. We all want regulations to be sensible and just, serving the common good, neither too much nor too little.
So who decides the age old questions: who pays, how much and for what? Those with money, with influence, those who vote, those who organize as pressure groups? What is the proper balance between taxes on individuals, groups and businesses and how progressive should progressive income taxes be?
What prompts our leaders to make the choices they make? How and why do we choose?
There are an infinite number of ways individuals look at the world, but in the world of politics there are two fundamental patterns.
The first is one of empathy and a sense of responsibility for others, of broad concern for complete strangers, for the less fortunate, for those in poor health, the very old and the very young, for the infirm. The role of government is to do for us all what we cannot each alone do for ourselves.
The morality of this approach is deeply rooted in our cultural and religious heritage; we care for others “because it is right” and because in working together we strengthen our city, our
state and our nation.
Then there is a worldview based on discipline, on personal responsibility, on our individual interests, on a limited collective safety net. We each are given the ability to determine our course in life and are each accountable for the consequences of our actions, for our excesses and our successes. We can overcome poverty by hard work and adversity by planning. Each of us must deal with the effects of our alcoholism, our smoking, for having bought a snowmobile instead of health insurance.
This emphasis on individual choice and responsibility is also deeply rooted in our cultural and religious heritage.
Our worldviews are rarely one or the other — nor need they be. Most of us have elements of each pattern influencing our outlook, and most political discussions occur in the middle ground.
Unfortunately, extremists of all persuasions are increasingly framing our public conversations with simplistic solutions, substituting sound bites for thought. They tempt us to take the easy way out and make emotional decisions based on our revulsion against those who game the system. There is scant recognition that cheating knows no boundaries, that affluent bankers can cheat as can the desperately poor and everyone else in between.
Extremists are just that, extremists, and their views do not help with the difficult, nuanced discussions about core issues that enable our society to move ahead.
We need to reframe our current political conversations and reflect upon our core values at each stage of our decision-making process. Personal responsibility is important, but it is only one frame of many.
Our American democratic experiment has been built equally on empathy, on the concept that we are all in this together and always have been, and that the more fortunate and less fortunate are inextricably linked.
Our government was founded on interdependence. It is not based solely on helping the less fortunate, but it is rather a joint project of us all for us all, helping to meet our needs together that we cannot meet alone.
The burning issue of our day is how we can work together, how we can restore American competitiveness, create more high-value-added jobs, and educate our children to fill these
jobs. We must work together to reinvent the future.
We will endlessly debate the appropriate balance between these views, but we should always remember that a common humanity binds us. We must defend ourselves against scoundrels — they are present in all walks of life. But the choices we make in these difficult times must have a moral foundation which calls on, as did Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature.”
Geoffrey is a physician who practices and lives Bangor. He also serves on the Bangor City Council.