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Opinion

February 15, 2012

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So what good is a government?

So what good is a government?
There is a very interesting debate going on in Republican quarters these days: one of the main candidates of the US primaries, Mitt Romney, is not considered conservative enough by many in his own party.
“I trust that his idea of conservatism is evolving and I base this on a pretty moderate past he has had, even in some cases a liberal past,” former presidential candidate Sarah Palin said recently. Romney, she says, “agreed with mandating on a state level what his constituents needed to be provided, needed to purchase in the way of healthcare and Romneycare, which of course was the precursor to Obamneycare.”
During his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, Romney tried to cover the 8 percent uninsured for healthcare. For most, that should be a good thing. But Romney cannot live it down, now that he is asking for votes from Republican voters to choose him as their presidential candidate. And it is not a small matter: he has recently tried to convince his voters that he is “severely” conservative.
Frameworks created by rhetoric are powerful structures; and nothing is so powerful in the conservative US political discourse than a distrust of big government making decisions for the individual. In a perfect world, this is a fine concept. No one wants government being nosy. But when the same supporters of non-interference let private companies and banks off the regulation hook and believe that profit is more important than national security in terms of jobs and fiscal independence, then there are some reasonable questions that arise.
So where nobody wants the state to interfere in their lives, should affordable provision of healthcare in times of high unemployment, no health-insurance and expensive healthcare be also deemed as interference? Free economy is a fine-sounding concept. Only it extracts a heavy cost in terms of inequality in the society. Statistics prove that the wider the difference between the rich and the poor, the bigger the social problems. Major impediment to social mobility, inequality is the modern day ball-and-chain holding us down, making it so tiring to take even a few steps forward.
Inequality shapes our lives: pasts, presents, and futures. The poor remain poor in their lifetime but also in the lifetimes of their children. In the last few decades we have seen the rich become phenomenally rich, the middle class collapse into lower middle class, and the poor become poorer. I don’t know much about how inequality is justified in a political ideology but I hear American media pundits highlighting notions of independence and privacy – which are excellent in themselves – but do not explain why the top tier of the free market is so healthy and comfortable.
Obviously, there is some problem somewhere. Why are the rich generally healthy and the poor often ill? How come middle-class families are finding it more difficult every day to come out of health shocks? Why are children in poor children families chronically malnourished and the school dropout higher in low-income households? Why is the American Dream – a house and job – eluding so many in the US now?
The ongoing mortgage and job market crisis shows that much economic oversight and social legislation is needed to make “free economy” work for everyone – not just the rich. In the US primaries, since the candidates have to get votes from core registered party voters, the politics becomes very intense and rather extreme. Hopefully, after the primaries are over, the successful candidate will start inching towards the centre. That said, it is disturbing how political discourse is bent for numbers, and not principles.
Republicans build their campaign in the US on the framework that government should not be in politics. We hear the same argument in Pakistan – especially by technocrats in Islamabad. But the fact remains, as Mr Romney realised during his governorship, that social-welfare programmes are essential for a government to remain relevant for the vulnerable and the poor. If a government cannot improve the lives of its masses, then what good is it?
How often have we heard the explanation that a shoeless, sweater-less child begging on the roads of Lahore in winters is used to it? How can someone be used to starvation and vagaries of the weather? And would that be her choice? When we say used to, we almost imply that she is fine with begging in head-numbing cold – or at the very least we need not feel bad about her being cold and uncomfortable and hungry. As if the child has a choice...
For the Pakistani elite it is easier to carry a 3,500-dollar designer handbag nonchalantly, but impossible to understand why a middle- class office worker continues to get his hurting teeth extracted instead of getting an expensive root canal treatment. There is little political discussion to make sense of these two worlds.
Apart from dishing dirt on each other, political parties need to discuss both the changing realities and the constant unchanging realities of today’s world. Jobs are moving out of the US and T-shirts are cheap – changing reality. People still need jobs – unchanged reality. Instead of focusing on merits and demerits of redundant economic models, there is need to discuss what can be done to improve the lot of everyone. How can all of us have a decent living where we have access to good healthcare, education, security, and freedom?
Why are we hostage to a few definitions of some systems, whether capitalist or socialist or social-welfare? Obviously there are system faults. Why do we define something and then try to fit everything according to it? What if we need a bigger or different system? What if we have outgrown the old systems? As societies evolve and our needs change, shouldn’t economic and social systems also evolve?

The writer is a former editor of The News Lahore.
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