Term Paper: American Government and Its Influence and Control on Society

Pages: 4 (1525 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 4  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Government  ·  Buy This Paper

¶ … government has a perfect right to influence behavior to the best of its ability if it is for the welfare of the individual and the community as a whole.

This quote, by former Surgeon General of the United States C. Everett Koop, epitomizes the view that government is in place to act as a type of benevolent watchdog for society. The essence of the quote was made in a public health viewpoint, but is both paternalistic and arrogant in that it says that the government has the authority and expertise to judge what is good and bad for the populace. In the context of his speech, Koop was referring to the government's efforts to discourage smoking, mandate childhood vaccinations, and limit risky behavior. This, of course, is positive -- the government has a mandate to do the best for its citizens, and if smoking, unprotected sex, and lack of vaccination contributes to the public health, what could be wrong with that point-of-view? (Bayer).

However, the other side argues that the American tradition of limited government goes back to the Founding Fathers and the debates about federalism, equal rights, and the limits of governmental power on its citizens. The potential for misuse of governmental power in some situations may actually preclude the positives that a paternalistic system may have. Since the Age of Enlightenment this has been a central debate for political philosophers -- what are the basic rights and responsibilities of the individual to the government and, in turn, what is the government's responsibility to its citizenry?

The concept of federalism holds that groups are bound together for mutual good under a representative governing authority. In the United States, the federal political unit (Federal Government) holds certain exculpatory powers and the 50 states hold certain powers within their jurisdiction. When looking at government, the concepts of fiscal federalism are both horizontal and vertical in nature. Horizontally, or across governmental platforms, fiscal issues focus on regional imbalances and competition. Vertically, fiscal relations refer to the Federal and State governments, and who controls the disposition of dollars. It is, in fact, this imbalance that defines most of the debate about fiscal federalism's role in the efficient use of funds for needed projects (Sharma). However, this basic idea of federalism not only has rammifications between federal and state power, it also tends to allow more power to the federal government in not just implementing Congressional acts, but in making decisions "for the good of the people."

During the 16th and 17th centuries, one of the primary social arguments surrounding the rights of the individual. One of the basic tenets was the ideal of liberalism, or a political philosophy based on the principle of egalitarianism (liberty, individual and social freedoms, equality). This view became a distinct political and social philosophy during the Age of Enlightenment, arising from the philosophical rejection of a number of institutions centering on hereditary privilege, state religion, the Divine Right of Kings, and absolute monarchy (Gay). Liberalism is tied together with social justice as well, forming the locus of liberalism as an emancipatory philosophy. The Enlightenment changes in urbanization and technology, access to other cultures, and accented the study of what it means to be human. John Locke, known as the Father of Liberalism, centered his philosophy on social justice and emancipation. He noted: "The Natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule" (Uzgalis).

Social justice may thus be thought of as a synonym for the emancipatory views that arose from the Enlightenment. In its most basic form, social justice is the fairness and just law or custom exhibited within a given society. It should be applied universally to all members of that society, and is defined by not only a rule of law, but by the people advocating for and practicing a sense of egalitarianism. Social justice means that society understands the value of human rights recognizes the dignity of every human being, and that law is based not on privilege, class, or economic status, but on the ideas of equality. In fact, it is interesting that several international documents hold that social justice must be universal and must educate on the system of global human rights (Barry). This view was part of a centuries old tradition coming from Aristotle and Plato in which virtue and justice for the individual not only equals happiness and actualization, but betterment for society. The basic assumption for Aristotle is that humans are moral agents. Through their individual actions, humans instinctively know what is right and wrong, best for them, and by extension, best for society.

"The wider notion of human agency presumably includes, besides actions and choices, emotional dispositions, non-moral or 'prudential' forms of practical reasons, imagination, the concept of attention, a sense (or lack) of self-worthy, insight and perception and a variety of other motor and cognitive skills and traits. A human agent is thus a combination of these and other factors, but from the point-of-view of act morality a moral agent. . . . [from that standpoint then humans] are what we do" (Aristotle).

Thus, using Aristotle's virtue theory, when expanding the individual to society, and then society to government, he finds that "governments which have a regard to the common interest are constituted in accordance with strict principles of justice, and are therefore true forms; but those which regard only the interest of the rulers are all defective and perverted forms, for they are despotic . . "(Constitutional Rights Foundation).

German sociologist Max Weber took this view and notes that it is manner in which social authority becomes capitalized for individuals that causes their personal power to diminish. Without this personal power, individuals redefine themselves more as cogs than as citizens, and thus give up more authority to the government. Authority, then, rather than being solely economic, does have at its basic roots an idea of class or structure and control -- a preponderance of ways to keep one from actualization for Weber. "In order that a manner of life well adapted to the peculiarities of the capitalism…. Could come to dominate others, it had to originate somewhere, and not in isolated individuals alone, but as a way of the common to the whole group of man" (Weber).

Functionalism, in effect, is a broad perspective in which society is the macro structure. Within society there are various components that act in congruence with one another -- sometimes in conflict, sometimes in cooperation, to provide wholeness. Herbert Spencer, for instance, saw these various parts of society (norms, customs, traditions, institutions, etc.) in the same way one can view the various organs of the body and the manner in which they work together to form the total individual. Disease, illness, or dysfunction in one of the organs can have an effect on the other organs; ultimately causing the entire organism to die. Thus, the reason that social ills and issues seem to reoccur is that the individual parts of the "organism" actual never completely change in structure -- but may evolve in technological knowledge. Too, like the brain controlling the body, government must have some say in preserving society, but still allowing for individual freedom of choice (Urry).

Essentially, we have an argument based on the principles of utilitarianism and deontology. In general utilitarianism tells us that it is the actions that provide the greatest good for the greatest number are moral and right. Deontology is similar, but holds that it is the means to those results that is important in defining the morality of actions. Aristotle held that government had the responsibility to uphold the good for the population,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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