“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816
A couple centuries ago, this nation’s independence was predicated on the rebellious notion of “No Taxation without Representation”. The fundamental belief in the consent of the governed inspired the original “Tea Party” and, as a result, we live today in a successful, if deeply divided, representative democracy.
In recent years, however, elements of the extreme right have conspired to truncate that original revolutionary catch phrase to a simple “No Taxation.” Search all you want, but nothing in the Constitution guarantees that the right to amass wealth shall supersede all other rights or that the right to profit shall never be infringed.
Still, one conservative ideologue advocates for a government that can be drowned in a bathtub, while still another seeks to bestow “personhood” on corporations while advocating for the reversal of the hard-won rights of organized labor. It is one thing to discuss reasonable constraints on the intrusion of government on private lives and quite another to suggest government is incapable of providing for the common good.
We yield to such demagoguery at our own peril.
Our elected leaders are charged with a half-dozen tasks in the preamble of our Constitution. A Social Contract is in peril when one party to the contract declines all reasonable compromise and proves itself unwilling to enter into the debate with anyone perceived as opposition.
Our union will be more perfect when all citizens are better informed. We will establish justice when every child is able to access a high-quality education. We will ensure domestic tranquility when the fruits of skills and knowledge replace the catch-as-catch-can of the ill-prepared. How can we ever hope to promote the general welfare without leveling the playing field at the schoolhouse?
Such accomplishments depend on communal goodwill and sacrifice. They are common interests and all of them have associated costs. One would be hard-pressed to name a more important endeavor for the maturation of our democracy than the maintenance of a firm commitment to Public Education.
Our priorities at all levels of government – federal, state and local – must endure harsher scrutiny. Do we want government that serves corporate interests or one that serves the people? Our founding documents are pretty clear on that issue as well.
This nation spends more on the “common defense” than the next six industrialized nations combined, while too many American children sit in overcrowded classrooms studying outdated materials in dilapidated physical plants. We purchase more than enough arms to deal with our external threats, but how will we secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity if we permit ourselves to decay from within?
[A shorter version of this Commentary first appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette on June 14, 2012.]