Friday, July 4, 2014

Righting a Wrong on the Fourth of July. Period.

On this Fourth of July, when the country celebrates its right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", have we got the role of government in securing these rights... wrong?

Source: National Archives via The New York Times
"...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."

New research by Danielle Allen (Princeton) on the Declaration of Independence has called into question the accepted emphasis on individual rights. She argues that an errant period was added in hand-made copies (Figure 1, highlighted). This meant that the second sentence in the Declaration (quoted) became entirely about the individual. By referring back to the original document, where the period is apparently missing, and individual and government are in the same sentence, "the logic... moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights".*

This re-interpretation of the government's role is philosophical. But consider the facts. Last year, the government provided an estimated $212 billion in welfare payments to support the poor and vulnerable. But substantially more - $335 billion - was donated by the public to US non-profits, the majority of whom exist to support education, human services and health.  

A population served predominantly by non-profits is one that has been let down by the mainstream system and fallen into the gap between the government and private sectors. Today, 1 in 7 people live in poverty. A more accurate measure shows it could be higher still. Non-profits report rising demand for services, particularly those that serve the most vulnerable. It would appear that not everyone has the right, or the opportunity**, to pursue happiness.

On the one hand, non-profits operating at the coal face are in a better position to understand local issues. On the other hand, they often deal with the consequences, rather than causes, of disadvantage. When they advocate for change, it is to the government. Only the government has the incentive, scale and investment horizon to deal with these underlying causes: more jobs; higher wages; affordable housing; higher-quality education. In the extreme, when government has done its job, charity should cease to exist. On the day that America reflects upon its "unalienable rights", for many, that concept is indeed alien.

* As quoted in the New York Times
** Or the capability, to use Amartya Sen's language

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