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What's Fair? Two Views of Government

Americans can be proud of our diverse views of the role of government.

This post is in response to
The Elephant in the Room

As a psychologist who specializes in marriage counseling, I find it interesting to look at how American political parties, like argumentative spouses, have developed rigid negative views of each other.

Yes, the parties do differ in their views of how to give fair governance to all of America's citizens.

At the same time, how good it would be for all of the family of American citizens if our political parties could view each others' differing perspectives with more empathy. Imagine how much happier we all would be if we could see each others' concerns and proposals with respect instead of knee-jerk opposition!

Democrats and Republican differ in their psychological assumptions of what citizens need from their government. Perhaps these differences stem from whether they view citizens more as dependent children or as adult offspring.

Democrats see fair as the government taking good care of its citizens like parents would of the children in their family, e.g., as President Obama would take care of his two daughters. Republicans regard government more as parents of adult children, the way patriarchs and matriarchs of a large family would treat their adult offspring. That is, they each treat the American citizenry as if America is a family in a different stage of a family's developmental life cycle.

When Democrats talk about more taxes for the rich, they define fair in our economy as closing the income differences, much like good parents would want to insure that they are treating their children financially equally. The role of government in this view is to re-distribute wealth to reduce what goes to “the rich” via taxation and to give to those in need via social welfare programs.

This view is similar to the way most parents take care of their young kids, being sure that each child receives what they need of love, money, time and attention.

Republicans by contrast start from a conception of fair based on personal responsibility, that we each reap what we sow and that we each are adults who can make most decisions for ourselves. Like a parent of adult children government in this view expects offspring/citizens to be mainly self-sufficient. It expects them to be able to make their own decisions about how to earn and how to spend their money, and assumes that they want to exercise their independence with minimal interference from their parents.

At the same time, Republican “compassionate conservatism” posits that all of us, and especially those who reap more, have a personal responsibility to react with generosity and compassion to those in need. It assumes that personal contributions to charities, plus government, together must insure that no one should be left without the basics necessary for physical survival. If adult children were to run into emotional or other distress, parents/charities/government for sure needs to be there with a helping hand.

If both candidates express concern that the needy receive help, how is help given differently?

Democrats see help as being funneled primarily through government. Republicans see help for the neediest as coming somewhat from government via social programs but primarily from government creating economic conditions for the full family of America to thrive. In addition, the Republican perspective expects citizens and families to be charitable to each other as a first line of help for folks in distress.

The risks of each parties' different "parenting styles" can be viewed also in systems theory terms. Some family systems err on the side of enmeshment, that is, of the parents being overly involved in all that the children do. The risk here is that parents/government inadvertently can have a constricting or even crippling impact on the children if they are overly protective. Other family systems err on the side of becoming disengaged, that is, parenting with too much benign neglect. In this case they may not be there to help when help is genuinely needed. Both extremes of course can become problematic.

In a family, the right amount of helicopter hovering versus hands-off parenting depends upon the ages and therefore the needs of the children. Probably the same is true of the needs of our citizenry. Those with insufficient education and personal maturity need more charitable or government involvement. Those who function with self-sufficient independence thrive best with trusting parents who provide a safe and nurturing environment in which citizens expect maximal personal freedom and assume individual responsibility for their own welfare.

One value that makes America great is that caring for others is part of the definition of fair for most of us.

Fair goes beyond taking care of just myself. As the philospher Hillel once wrote, "If I am not for myself, who will be? And if I am for myself alone, what good am I?"

Democrats might say that fair requires the government to redistribute the wealth of those who have earned and/or received exceptional good financial fortune.

Republicans might be more likely to say that fair is giving citizens personal responsibility for taking care of themselves and for helping others, with government just the safety net of last resort and regulation mostly just a matter of ensuring basic safety..

In reality, neither party is all or nothing in these strategies of how to implement being fair.

For instance, President Obama, in his initial speech to folks hit by Hurricane Sandy, stressed that we each have to reach out to help our neighbor in this time of need.

Similarly, Republicans reminds us that one reason why we must effectively address our spending excesses and reduce our deficit is that it is not “fair” to leave huge debts for the next generation. They express concern too that a slow economy and sluggish growth rate is a burden felt the most keenly by the poor and the unemployed. Government must therefore be more effective in removing excessive regulation and taxation that are holding the economy back from growth.

My conclusions

How fortunate we are that we live in a country where both political parties are concerned with the well-being of our citizens—not, as in all too many countries, with running a kleptocracy that takes citizens' money to line their own pockets!

How fortunate too we are that though they advocate different solution ideas, both political parties seek economic fairness, that is, ways for all of us to take care of each other as well as of ourselves.

How good it would be if instead of demonizing each other both parties could work collaboratively for the good of all of the country.

Both parties have important views to contribute. Alas, too often our two good parents are locked in combat instead of engaging in collaborative dialogue. They clearly need help in how to communicate in a relationship.

How much better it would be for all Americans if our political parties and politicians would learn to talk and listen more respectfully with each other.

May G-d bless America with maturely cooperative government leaders!

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD


(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD
(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD
(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

Denver psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD is author of The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook, and also of an interactive website. All three of these resources teach the skills for talking collaboratively about difficult subjects.

Dr. Heitler's latest book, Prescriptions Without Pills, offers methods of releasing negative emotions, and also suggestions for sustaining the positive dialogue that keeps relationships healthy and gratifying.

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