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November 7, 2007
Maintain the Balance of Societal Power
Now that American citizens have gone to the polls to vote, it’s time to
consider the role of our duly elected and amended government.
That was a topic of debate even before the U.S. Constitution was drafted
220 years ago. Some maintain that the only legitimate role of government
is to protect this country from foreign enemies and to promote domestic
law and order. Others support federalism. Still more advocate the
supremacy of states’ rights.
When push comes to shove, however, all the theories about what powers
belong to what level of government aren’t worth a warm bucket of spit
compared to the true role of any government.
And that role is to maintain the balance of power between groups of
people and between individuals. This role includes upholding the rights
of a minority of just one. Majority rule too often slips into majority
Let’s examine some examples of maintaining the balance of power. When
southern states refused to end Jim Crow laws preventing blacks from
voting or having equal access to schools, transportation or restrooms,
the federal government (after much prodding from civil rights activists)
stepped in to outlaw such blatant discrimination. States rights are all
well and fine, but they don’t include the right to discriminate against
individuals based on race or any other presumed rationale.
Another example of power balancing is child protection legislation. Due
to their physical and emotional immaturity, children are always in a
one-down position pitted against adults – even and especially their
parents and other family members. In recent decades, government has
stepped up efforts to ferret out instances of child abuse and neglect,
thus making the position of children somewhat more equal to that of
Employment laws are supposed to function in much the same way – to even
out the balance of power between employers, who sign the paychecks and
so issue the orders, and employees, who obey or are fired. Environmental
regulations aim to balance the needs of species and wilderness from the
desires of businesses that make money from natural resources.
Does this balancing act always work out perfectly? Of course not.
Legislators at all levels invariably pass imperfect laws that are also
enforced improperly. Some argue that government’s flaws make it more the
problem than the solution, but knee-jerk privatization isn’t the answer
either. Those who doubt this might want to consider Blackwater in Iraq
and Walter Reed Army Hospital in this country. Both debacles resulted
from anti-government ideology trumping common sense.
Let us start, then, from the premise that government’s legitimate role
is to balance the power between the meek and the mighty, between the
minority and the majority. It then becomes somewhat easier to evaluate
proposed laws and regulations. Do they uphold the rights of the
individual? Do they strike an equitable balance between the rights of
the many and the rights of the few or the one? The devil, naturally, is
in the details of defining “equitable.”
There’s no one right way to achieve a balance of power, and since the
civil rights era of the 1950s through 1970s, there has been a lot of
pushback from groups who, for whatever reason, believe they are demeaned
or disenfranchised when laws or the courts’ interpretation of them
expand to uphold rights of others.
But this isn’t some zero-sum game. This isn’t some
they-win-rights-so-we-lose proposition. When the law expands the rights
of even the smallest minority it upholds the rights of everyone else.
The founders of this country hoped to prevent tyranny by divvying up
power among three co-equal branches of government and by establishing
different levels of government (federal, state, local). No nation will
prosper or endure long, however, if it diminishes the law by failing to
uphold the balance of power or when government officials usurp powers
that are not and have never been rightfully theirs.
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