THE Rita Fisher case, in which three adults were convicted of abusing a 9-year-old child so severely that she died, has produced an outpouring of public outrage, not only against the perpetrators, but also against Baltimore County's Department of Social Services, whose director took the hit and was forced to resign.
Why didn't social services workers respond to reports from teachers and neighbors? Isn't that what a government social services agency is for -- to protect children against abuse and intervene on behalf of a concerned society? Etc.
This shocking case is an example of our conflicted attitudes about government, which could be replicated a thousand times in every sphere of activity. On the one hand, parents should be free of government interference; on the other, society has a responsibility to protect all children. We applaud the whittling down of Big Government, a monstrous imposition of waste and fraud foisted on us by tax-and-spend liberals; we demand better social services, better schools, better policing, better everything. We want government off our backs at tax time, but we also want government to be there to help whenever the need arises. We're like little kids who want to be grown up and independent, but run to mother whenever things go wrong. And our conflicted attitudes about government are readily exploited by politicians who exaggerate both sides of the issue and make all-or-nothing agendas inevitable.
America's ambiguity over taxes and government, more pronounced than in other countries, goes back to the origin of a nation born out of opposition to taxes imposed on colonists by a remote British government. During the American Revolution, the government was clearly them and taxpayers were just as clearly us. After the revolution, suspicion of government led the founders to write a constitution that bent over backward to protect citizens against governmental tyranny and established a balance of power between executive, legislative and judicial branches to ensure none would get too big for its boots. It even spelled out the right of individuals to bear arms in case a patriot militia was needed to resist oppression, as the revolutionary patriots resisted the perceived oppression of the British.
That legacy is still with us. With this traumatic background, it's no wonder America evolved with conflicted attitudes toward government and taxation. At the same time, the embryo nation evolved with an equally ambiguous attitude toward national government, conceived as an uneasy federation of states and an additional burden on local taxpayers. American states are far more powerful and independent than British counties, and arguments over local, state and federal powers and jurisdictions are continuous. The outcome is even more ambiguity about the role of government in its various manifestations and who is responsible for paying for it.
One manifestation of this ambiguity is that the United States is about the only modern nation that does not have a national health system, which most European nations established early in their quest for a "welfare state" -- a beneficent society in which government provided a full range of supports and protections for individual citizens. But America today, after flirtations with the New Deal and the Great Society, seems finally to have turned its back on the idea and the ideal of a welfare state. The very word "welfare" in American usage is synonymous with dependency, and both major parties have voiced commitment to shrinking Big Government, which is conceived not as beneficial services but as bureaucratic inefficiency.
A climactic moment in recent U.S. history was the defeat of the Clinton administration's national health plan. Health care in America was acknowledged to be a mess, with 40 million uninsured and insurance rates rising catastrophically. Even doctors, who had for 50 years campaigned against "socialized medicine," were advocating a national health program. But legislation was defeated by the health care and insurance industries, feeding public suspicion of government control and bureaucratic inefficiency. And, to be fair, citizens have reason to question the efficiency of services in a country where government departments have always been regarded as havens for the dumb and slothful, not enterprising and dynamic like business and industry. Just because national health programs work in Canada and the United Kingdom, does that mean they would work here, where citizens are so demanding, so suspicious, so ready to rip off the system and build cushy bureaucracies?
When we think of government in the abstract, as all the faceless agencies and regulators and bureaucrats, its easy to scorn Big Government and resist taxation of our "hard-earned dollars." But when we need a government service to protect children, control crime, fight fires, collect trash or fill the potholes, we want action, and we want it now.
I want my Big Momma. Grow up, America.
John Brain is a Baltimore free-lance writer.
Pub Date: 5/07/98