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Having It Both Ways

(Published in the Scranton Times-Tribune, June 4, 2020)

In my children’s book on civics, “How the U.S. Government Works,” I explain to young readers what the U.S. was like under the Articles of Confederation. I describe how each state had its own rules, but there were no rules that applied to all states; how each state had its own form of currency, but there was no currency for all of the states; how the states were fighting over boundaries and navigation rights on waterways, but there was no place for them to go to resolve their disputes.

I write that leaders of the various states realized this loose system of separate governments wasn’t working and that they needed a government for all of the states. So the states sent delegates to Philadelphia in 1787, and they wrote the Constitution to form a national government for all of the states.

The Confederation era, the Constitutional Convention, and the history of American political thinking ever since reflect this struggle between a strong and a weak central government. And this struggle represents attempts by political leaders to reconcile two competing world views that most Americans have to some degree. Some of us see ourselves and our role in society as a function of “We’re all in this together,” while others see the world as “Every man for himself.”

For much of our history, the U.S. has been an “every man for himself” kind of place. We celebrate the rugged individualism of the pioneers, the settlers, the financial and industrial giants who built the country in the 19th century into the superpower it became in the 20th. We value individual rights and resist excessive governmental intrusiveness. Our founding documents tell us that government gets its powers from us, and not the other way around.

But at times of great crisis, we have seen that a “we’re all in this together” approach has helped us through. Alexander Hamilton saw it when a financially unstable United States launched with a sinking economy, so he created a collective economic system that kept the new ship of state afloat. FDR’s appeal to collective action got the country through the Great Depression and World War II. And the terror attacks of 9/11 introduced a new era of heightened security that required most of us to sacrifice some of our freedom for the sake of national security.

The COVID-19 pandemic spotlights the conflict between the individual and collective frames of mind. The pandemic, in a very literal way, requires a “we’re all in this together” commitment to minimize its destructiveness. But the pandemic is striking the U.S. at one of the most “every man for himself” eras in history, most conspicuously represented by the president.

Americans in cities and states that have been hit hardest and earliest by the virus have learned from experience that they need to protect each other in order to protect themselves, even if that means accepting some restrictions on their freedoms. They wear masks not just for their protection, but to protect others. The tacit understanding is if they protect others, others will return the courtesy and protect them. It is the Golden Rule writ large: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And it works.

But many Americans, especially in places that up until now have not had major outbreaks, have resisted government-imposed restrictions. They place their highest value on individual rights. They will protect themselves, their family, and the groups with which they most immediately identify, but reject government efforts to tell them what it thinks is best for everyone.

I end “How the U.S. Government Works” by telling young readers that “the government cannot do its job alone” and “the people” have important responsibilities like voting, paying taxes, doing military and other public service, and serving on juries to help the government do its job. In other words, we’re all in this together.

But I also respect the U.S. tradition of individualism. It has created opportunity, growth, and the chance for people to succeed. “Every man for himself” gets us initiative, capital, and experimentation, all of which lead to new businesses, new jobs, and improved quality of life. It also helps us manage life’s ups and downs.

So maybe the next time I write a new edition of the book, I’ll remind young readers that there are few absolutes in life and in governance. That one doesn’t have to choose between “we’re all in this together” and “every man for himself.” That we can have both. That we all have our individual rights, but those rights only extend until they interfere with someone else’s individual rights. That we establish governments to help us identify those boundaries by making laws and enforcing them when necessary.

Because when a crisis hits and we are all vulnerable as individuals, it’s our collective strength that protects us and helps us fight back. It’s by marshaling our resources, sending them where they’re needed most, encouraging people to help and respect each other and stepping in when they don’t, that we can do the most good for the most people. And the institution our Founders created to do that job is government.

That’s how the U.S. government is supposed to work.

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