Ignore the Government...

How bad is the financial situation in Illinois? A knowledgeable source noted last week that the three national rating agencies have put Illinois on what is called “credit watch.” This means that within 90 days, if things don’t start looking better, our debt holders will start flooding the market with the bonds they now hold, and Illinois will no longer be able to borrow.

That is tantamount to disaster for a state that is six months behind in paying its bills and has already made drastic cuts in services to the elderly, children, the disabled, and the mentally ill. If we can’t continue to borrow, we will run out of money. The state will no longer be able to function.

One wonders how we could have let Illinois reach this point.

There is a witches’ brew of reasons. This is a bad time for government everywhere. Everybody hates taxes. Accusations of waste, bad policy, and poor management are always available as reasons to do nothing. Most people probably don’t find what happens in Springfield very interesting even in the best of times. A legacy of corruption that includes three ex-governors jailed since the 1970’s and the tragic spectacle of Rod Blagojevich has made it even less likely that the public will respond to what is now upon us.

Perhaps there is a deeper cause for our failure to act. Many people do not share an assumption that I, and my colleagues at PCG, take almost for granted: that government should work actively on behalf of the common good.

This is the central point of a new document on our website: a Statement on Government by Franklin Gamwell, Professor at The Divinity School of The University of Chicago, and a founding board member of PCG.

“Government’s task is to promote the empowerment of its citizens,” he writes. “Life and liberty are not sufficient to a person’s pursuit of happiness…fulfillment requires opportunities received from his or her environments and communities…”

Those who do not share this view of government generally offer two responses. The first is that charity will solve the problems of the poor and ensure the flourishing of all. But try telling that to those who depend on Medicaid and Medicare, not to mention social security, or to parents who are able to work only because government-subsidized child care is available for their young children.

The second shibboleth is “personal responsibility” —we wouldn’t need government if the poor tried harder to make their way in the world and the rest of us cared more about each other. I don’t see how anyone can believe that after spending more than five minutes walking around the South and West Sides of Chicago.

Franklin Gamwell’s more formal response is that: “…To be sure, every individual must decide what to do with the possibilities circumstances offer, and this is the moral freedom we all exercise whatever our situation. But our moral choices are taken amidst greater or lesser opportunities that are determined by our larger context.”

As Christians, we are all given the Great Commandment, which calls upon us to “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 37b-39) In a democracy, it is impossible to love one’s neighbor without caring about what government does. This is what too many of us in Illinois have ignored for far too long. I commend Franklin Gamwell’s paper to you and invite your comments as Illinois edges ever closer to the abyss.

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