“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
This is the preamble to the Constitution of the United States. In it, our founding fathers speak about the role that government is supposed to play in the lives of people. In Judaism, our founding document is the Torah, the five books that record the experience of the people of Israel from the time of creation until they are ready to enter the Promised Land. The Jewish Bible, however does not have a preamble that speaks to its purpose. When it says at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God” it is telling us that these laws are God’s will for how people should live. When it says, “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord alone.” It is telling us that the rules are from the one God and there are no other Gods who can tell us to abrogate it. When the Torah reads, “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God is holy.” It is giving us a framework on how to live our lives, much the same way as the preamble to the Constitution does.
There has been a lot of discussion in this election year in this country about the role of government in the lives of its citizens. Certainly there are times when government is too intrusive and times when it needs to intrude more. It is always a balance between letting people do what they know is right and having government regulate what we do. The problem is not the government, I think, but we human beings who make up the population. I think we all agree that people can be selfish and self-serving. The Bible, even with all its laws, understands that there is no law code in the universe that can cover all the things a person should or should not do. We have to learn to be moral, fair and kind. The prophet Micha tells us that we know what God wants from us, “Only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” Justice makes sure we act fairly. Mercy gives us a break when we just make a mistake and walking humbly with God reminds us that we are not God but we have an obligation to try our best to do what God expects from us.
When the founding fathers of the United States wrote the Constitution, they were living in world where things did not go according to God’s law. Each state had its own version of justice. There were disputes between people and states that were not being mediated. Each state had its own version of a militia and no sense of working together with other states. Each state, each city and each person did what was profitable for themselves and not for the welfare of others. Being free required the people to be fair and the definition of fair often depended on what was at stake for the parties.
The role of government, therefore for the United States and for Judaism is summed up in this lesson from the Talmud, “pray for the welfare of the government, for without it people would devour each other alive.” I remember years ago, when police went on strike in a city in Canada, that rioting and lawlessness ruled the streets until they could get the officers back on patrol. I understood that the Talmud was not being theoretical. Law is what makes civilization possible.
I understand that nobody likes taxes. Rich people did not become rich by giving away money; they earned it and saved it so why should government be able to take it away? It is functionally no different from the blue color worker who gets a paycheck and wonders why the government can take out taxes from what she has earned. The problem, of course, is that the money collected from both rich and poor goes to provide the infrastructure we all depend on and makes sure that basic services are available for everyone in areas of health and retirement/disability income. Better to pay a little each day than to have a big bill show up when we are not expecting it. Judaism required everyone to pay taxes and it empowered the government to collect it no matter if the person wanted to pay or not.
The same applies to regulations. Nobody likes government telling us how to run our business. Yet who would clear and salt the walkways in front of their store in the winter if they were not told they have to do it? After all, snow removal costs money. The United States has a long history of requiring business to provide a safe work environment because business could not be relied upon to do it. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company had dozens of women die in a fire because they were saving money by not dealing with fire safety and they had locked doors so that the workers could not get out. From pollution issues to workers safety to standard benefits, business could not be relied upon to do what was right without government intervention. Greed and single-mindedness had corporations looking the other way when it came to doing what they should. I often say, “Human Beings have an infinite capacity to delude themselves”. We don’t think something will go wrong even as we make decisions that will all but insure problems. The role of Government is to bring a shot of reality into the way we live and the way we do business.
We can argue about who is responsible when people do stupid things. Does government have to regulate every possibility for the dumb things people do? (a month or so ago there was a disabled man who tried to drive his “scooter” up an escalator with disastrous results.) Finding the right balance is also the role of government and it is the responsibility of those electing representatives to elect those who will legislate with eye to where the voters stand on this issue.
Judaism teaches us that Government has to sometimes be the grownup in the room to make sure that we don’t hurt ourselves or others; that we will not “devour each other alive”. When I insist that Wall Street and Banks need regulation, I am not taking a political stand, I am reflecting the Jewish understanding that these institutions are not about a level playing field for all investors, they are about doing what will make money for their stockholders. To make sure what they do is fair for everyone will take government regulations. There is a long history, in this country of all kinds of fraud and insider trading going back hundreds of years. In my own life, there has been, from the junk bonds scandals of the 80’s to the Libor scandal of this year plenty of evidence that regulation is appropriate and needed. Rabbi in Ancient Israel set limits on what was an appropriate profit on a given sale; too much was price gouging.
There can be no free markets and no freedom for people if there are not sensible interventions by government. It is not about politics, it is about the natural role of government. Without government, is there any doubt that we would cannibalize each other?