Often the realities of American politics correspond very little to the theory or theories of government that we expound. This is a topic which I plan to write a great deal about, because I feel that it is perfectly possible to come up with a political philosophy that can be directly relevant to public policy discussion.
That political philosophy is, of course, a progressive one. Yet, rarely do I find the progressive view of government translated into the language of political philosophy, rights and duties. My first attempt to do so was in an article published a number of years ago in a small public policy journal, "The Current." Please note that all statistics are from a number of years ago, so they are likely a bit different today. I'd be happy to provide a copy with citations to anyone who wants it.
History continually shows that the boundaries of social justice are defined by the standards of the time. If a government spends all its resources on upholding duties within its society, yet is unable to cover all theoretical duties, those not covered can be seen to represent the goals of society; progress being represented through their attainment.
By Ben Fitzpatrick
The most important feature of political philosophy is its ability to direct attention to the disconnect in society between moral principles and actual public policy. Rarely has a direct correlation been made between theory of government and government as it is empirically analyzed. Many of the ideals of rights and duties that form the foundation of the morality behind a particular system of government break down when taken out of the theoretical world. This has been true of monarchies, aristocracies and democracies alike. Yet the inability of societies to fully implement theoretical principles of government has not, and should not, stop us from both reflecting on the differences between our ideals and our reality, as well as working to bridge the gap between the two. For this reason, the concept of duty, as it relates to rights and moral principles within American society, is the topic of this essay.
Generally, within liberal political theory, all rights imply a corresponding duty. Therefore, for example, if a nation decides to protect the right of individuals not to be harmed, it must enforce the duty of "non-maleficence." Without the enforcement of this duty, the right cannot be held up as a moral principle of the nation. American history is riddled with cases of rights being proclaimed by the majority without enforcement of the necessary duties to protect minority groups. For example, the 14th Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees equal protection of the laws, was enacted in 1868, yet it wasn’t until 1954 that segregation was ruled unconstitutional. For the 86 years in between, the right to equal protection under the law was proclaimed within American society, while the duty to uphold that right for all individuals was nonexistent. It is not a coincidence that the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned segregation, is hailed as one of the nation’s finest moments. For often the greatest achievements in American history are times when the inconsistencies between proclaimed rights and enforced duties have been recognized and remedied. To do this, as will be argued below, represents societal progress.
The relationship between proclaimed rights and enforced duties in American society is currently deteriorating. This is one aspect of our capitalist culture that must always be checked. For duty is one of the rare aspects of our society that is unquantifiable. Just as it would be impossible to determine how much personal freedom of speech is worth, it is impossible to say how much money could over-ride a duty. This is because duties exist in a binary world; they are either fulfilled or not. If they are not fulfilled, then a moral principle has been violated. At all times it is imperative that our society and its institutions are led by moral principles. The challenge is determining where our duties remain unfulfilled in society. Once that is accomplished, we must develop laws that reflect the necessary changes and build a society where these values are both respected and carried out.
In order to determine the unfulfilled duties within American society, it is necessary to recognize the rights that are, at least theoretically at this time, protected by the nation. Constitutionally, Americans are guaranteed certain rights such as the rights of speech, press, property, life, the right to be secure in one’s home, the right to trial by jury, the right to bear arms, the right to vote, and the right to be treated equally under the law. These rights provide the foundation for any theory of justice within American society. New rights have been added as the government has come to see the need to provide a higher standard of living for its neediest citizens. An example of this is the right for elderly people to have adequate health care in retirement. This right was included in the Social Security Amendments of 1965. The corresponding "duty" that supported this "right" came in the form of increases in payroll taxes. Given that only .8 percent of the elderly population in the United States does not have access to health care, it is fair to say that the right to health care in old age has been reasonably upheld. The government’s willingness to support the program’s cost, roughly 450 billion dollars out of a total 2.3 trillion dollar federal budget, helps to fulfill society’s duty to this segment of the population. And yet, it is easy here to see the paradox between theory and reality. Because government funding is finite, not all duties can be adequately addressed.
The reality of scarcity of resources within the governments of nations leads to a fundamental discord between philosophy and public policy: prioritization of rights and duties. Theoretically, all rights and duties have equal weight. By this principle, if any specific right is recognized, yet not upheld, societal justice is not attained. Yet in order to bring together theory and reality, the dimension of possibility must be added to the equation. Therefore, we can say that if a specific right is recognized, and it is possible for it to be upheld, then society is constrained by its corresponding duty. This view of duty has a number of advantages. To begin with, it views society as a progressive system. Many theories of government view a specific situation as an ideal end, which once attained, maximizes social justice. Yet history continually shows that the boundaries of social justice are defined by the standards of the time. If a government spends all its resources on upholding duties within its society, yet is unable to cover all theoretical duties, those not covered can be seen to represent the goals of society; progress being represented through their attainment. While the society can be said to be acting justly, given its constraints, it also has a moral imperative to strive for a future condition where currently theoretical duties continue to be addressed and enforced. In addition, this progressive view of rights and duties has no limit to what can be accomplished in the future, given that future rights are, at least in part, determined by what is possible within society.
Under this progressive view of rights and duties, there must be a framework to determine which rights can adequately be incorporated into government and society. This framework should use a number of factors, including resources, technology, as well as a measure of good governance. There are a number of conceptualizations put forward in philosophy which can be helpful in determining, fairly objectively, decisions based upon overall societal justice. Discussion of these principles and there application to a progressive view of rights and duties would be helpful for the development of the theory, but for the present it is enough to say that to be compatible with a liberal concept of political justice, they must fulfill two principles:
- Any right guaranteed to an individual must be compatible with a similar right guaranteed to all people within the community (nation).
- "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both; (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all."
Therefore, using these principles, any right added as society progresses must "arrange" society in a way that, at minimum, advantages all, and can be generally applied.
Rather than delve further into the discussion of which rights and duties should be incorporated into American government and society, it is easier, and likely more applicable, to examine specific rights that have in recent history been proclaimed within American society in order to determine whether the necessary duties have been enforced for the nation to live up to both the standards of justice and the moral imperative of progress. For this reason, the rights to education and health care will briefly be examined with respect to these principles. By determining how effectively these rights have been upheld, as well as whether their content has expanded (progressed) through time, it will be possible to determine the weight that their corresponding duties truly have within American government and society.
The right to a decent education, while not enumerated in the Constitution, has been an integral part of American society for many decades. I n 1948, the United States joined the United Nations in expressing the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," which includes:
Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
More recently, the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001," begins by stating: "The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education..." Finally, one of the current goals of the Department of Education is: "Strengthen the Federal commitment to assuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual." This shows that within American government, the idea of a right to education has been accepted, and steps have been put into place to enforce the corresponding duty (paying for and administering an adequate education system). Yet the actual results of education policy in the United States show that the challenge of guaranteeing a right to education has not been met with a commitment to the duty to ensure all children are being aided by the system. For example, 44 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 5 are in no early childhood educational program. Five percent of young adults in high school drop out each year. In 1999, only 77 percent of the population between the ages of 18 and 24 had received a high school diploma. Eight percent of 16 to 19 year olds were neither in school or working. While these percentages may seem relatively small, they represent millions of children (the population under the age of 19 in the United States currently stands at about 80 million ). In addition to this, the quality of education has not increased steadily in the recent past. Between 1988 and 1999, the average scaled score of 9 year olds in reading stayed the same. For 13 year olds, scores went up by .39 percent, and for 17 year olds, they decreased by .67 percent. The statistics for achievement in mathematics showed a similar trend. While these are only two indicators of progress in education, they show that improvement over time in our education system, at the least, has not been steady. Given that, within both government and society, the right to a decent education has been expressed as necessary and possible, justice demands increasing educational funding to a point where it corresponds with the duty to provide for all children equally, and to ensure that the quality of education expands with the growth and development of society.
While education is a right that has been extended to all members of society, the right to health care is guaranteed only to specific groups in the United States. Through Medicare and Medicaid, health care is guaranteed to all poverty stricken children, elderly, and disabled. Yet 11.4 percent of children (8.4 million) in the United States do not have health insurance. 19.2 percent of children that live in poverty lack health insurance. This means that those children who need health care most (children living in poverty), are the least likely to have it. Specific minority children are also more likely to be without health care, especially African Americans and Hispanics. In addition, while Medicare and Medicaid rolls have expanded over the past years, the total number of uninsured has increased. While the burden of fulfilling the duty to pay for health care for all disadvantaged children, elderly, and disabled is high (Medicare and Medicaid will cost a combined 475 billion dollars in 2005 ), the fact that it has been accepted by society as both possible and necessary means that it must be enforced in a way that satisfies the two principles of justice. Unfortunately, the current health care system fails the second principle of justice in that it does not bring the guaranteed social and economic advantages to all people within the groups it covers. In order to comply with both the principles of justice and the progressive view of rights and duties, it is necessary that all needy children, disabled and elderly be covered through increases in Medicare and Medicaid funding, and that the right of health care expand in the future, when possible.
As can be seen from the above discussion, one of the main jobs of governments is to enforce duties within society in a way that complies with both a liberal theory of justice and a progressive view of rights. Often, the enforcement of these duties is through allocation of taxes to government programs. Therefore, a large part of the duty of citizens is fulfilled, with respect to governmentally upheld rights, if their taxes cover the government expenditures necessary to pay for all programs needed to enforce all recognized and possible duties. Currently, the federal government has a 521 billion dollar deficit. This represents a large portion of federal programs, and their subsequent rights, which have been determined to be both necessary and possible, but which have been degraded by the unwillingness of American government and society to fulfill the corresponding duty. An undeniable fact of the current situation in American government is that, in order to truly uphold the rights maintained by the government, taxes must be raised so that each citizen is in full compliance with his or her duty. This connection between the moral obligations of the citizen and his or her government is characteristic of representative government. For, if a principle becomes universally embraced in society, democratic governance guarantees that eventually it will be represented in politics. Therefore, the moral shortcomings of any democratic government weigh equally upon its citizenry.
In order to gain continuity in America between the theoretical justice of our proclaimed rights, and the actual justice of our enforced duties, new obligations will need to be imposed on the government and society. For both the lawmakers and the taxpayers are equally culpable for the disconnect between these principles. This disconnect is represented by the fact that specific rights, guaranteed by the government (education and health care are the examples cited here), are not being upheld for many of the most needy groups within society. In addition, continuing deficits show a lack of commitment to uphold the duties that correspond to the rights proclaimed throughout American society. These are commonly put forth criticisms of American government, but by framing them within the concept of duty, the moral necessity of action becomes apparent. While it is often difficult for political theory to make judgments on specific public policy, through the lens of a progressive view of rights and duties, it is obvious that America, as a government and a society, is not fulfilling its moral obligation to maximize justice for all its citizens and to expand upon the current set of rights. Still, a shift in policy towards fulfilling the specific duties necessary to uphold our proclaimed rights is all that is necessary to ensure societal justice. Using a progressive theory of rights and duties, societal justice is partially determined by what is possible. The justice of current actions can be determined by past performance only if there is continuity between the two. While it may not be possible to immediately uphold all citizens’ rights to education, and health care, as well as pay down the budget deficit, a movement in the direction of better fulfilling these duties is morally required, and will greatly increase overall justice in American society.