Big Brother is a Schizophrenic

“And Bert, well I just guess that Bert is typical of the kind who complain about “Big Brother” while asking the same big brother to fix all of their problems.”

The above comment was posted in a thread that I was participating in recently. My first response was to reject it. And then, I thought some more and decided that the commenter was correct.

But the problem is, Big Brother is a schizophrenic, a clear case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I love the good things that government does, and loathe the bad.

As a liberal, I believe that government can do worthwhile things for its citizenry. In the early days of our nation, this was not as important or essential as it is now. The land was huge, and mostly uninhabited. People could do pretty much whatever they pleased with it and their neighbors were so far distant that it didn’t matter. But as the population grew, what one person did…clear-cut his forest, dig mines, build a factory that spewed toxic fumes…affected his neighbors, polluting the air that they breathed and the water that they drank, poisoning their land with toxic runoff. Regulation of business became necessary to protect the many from the actions of a few. This was part of the same system of laws that protects the populace from criminals. Few would argue that such restraints are unnecessary.

This benevolent Big Brother protects us from all kinds of harm, both from criminals in our midst, and from attacks from foreign powers…or terrorists. It also protects us from individuals who value the profitability of their business above any harm done to neighbors…or to the environment as a whole.  These are indeed problems that I expect our government to “fix,” and I am guilty as charged. On the other hand, when government attempts to sidestep the law, invading the personal privacy of citizens, or ignoring the Constitutional rights of people they have imprisoned, even engaging in medieval torture, I deplore these actions of a tyrannical Big Brother.  Once again, I am guilty as charged.

But like the tortured character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, government is not all good or all evil, and the definitions of good and evil are often in the eye of the beholder. Regulation of business is often seen as arbitrary and meddlesome by the captains of industry, and in some cases it has clearly been heavy-handed. On the other side, social welfare systems that provide no incentive for individuals to work and provide for themselves are destructive of the social fabric and ultimately unaffordable by those who must pay the bill.

If you asked every citizen in our nation what government should do and what it should not do you would have as many opinions as there are citizens. There would be some commonality, but every person has his/her own “ax to grind.”  Personal biases, political philosophies: Conservative Republicans and Libertarians would mostly agree that smaller and less intrusive government is better. Liberals favor government intervention to provide “safety nets” for people…unemployment and disability insurance, affordable healthcare, education incentives, etc.

But there are a whole range of issues that are not as obvious…subsidies for things ranging from agricultural products to oil wells to ethanol to renewable energy and hybrid cars. How about the regulation of the crash-worthiness of cars, or worker safety, or the minimum wage, or worker’s rights to organize and strike, especially in “essential” industries?

Things get murky in a hurry when you start examining the details and assigning some to Dr. Jekyll and some to Mr. Hyde.

Every one of us is guilty of demanding services from our government that we want or need, and of complaining about paying for those that we don’t need but other people do.

It’s a love-hate relationship.

And each of us has lots of reasons for both.

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