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Three theories on government explain what to expect until Nov. 3

The first presidential debate was supposed to be about difficult political, legal, economic and cultural issues. Although President TrumpDonald John TrumpState Department revokes visa of Giuliani-linked Ukrainian ally: report White House Gift Shop selling ‘Trump Defeats COVID’ commemorative coin Biden says he should not have called Trump a clown in first debate MORE succeeded in reducing it to a contest of personalities, these disagreements will continue to rage until Election Day, especially as Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court progresses. Despite their complexity, the issues should be much easier to navigate once we understand the three theories of government that ultimately drive them. 

The first — conservatism — is about preserving our deepest democratic values. These values include the two main categories of “assets” in our Constitution: our individual rights to life, liberty and property, and the separation of powers among the three branches of government. Conservatives are not necessarily opposed to social, political or legal reforms per se. They just insist that these reforms be incremental and neither disrupt nor erode our constitutional order. 

Second is libertarianism, the theory that government is inherently oppressive, individual liberty is the highest good and, therefore “that government is best which governs least.” Yes, we still need a police force and military to do what individuals alone cannot: protect us collectively from internal threats (crimes) and external threats (invasion and terrorism). But that’s about it. We can and should do everything else by ourselves, without relying on the government.  

Third is progressivism (also known as liberalism or socialism). Progressives view government as the best possible institution to promote and protect the rights and interests of all the people it represents. These rights and interests include a decent standard of living, affordable health care, affordable housing, quality education, and equal treatment under the law. 

Suppose, then, that “Anne,” a single, 30 year-old Black mother of two young children, works two jobs, both of which pay federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour), and contracts pneumonia. What role, if any, should the government play here? 

The progressive will say three things. First, the government should force Anne’s employers to pay her much higher wages so that she can afford all the necessities and a reasonable amount of the luxuries that modern Americans typically enjoy. Second, neither Anne’s race nor her relatively low income should make her less of a priority than any other American; her value not just as an employee and as a mother, but also as a human being, is equal to that of every other human being. Third, the government should therefore help Anne receive and pay for the medical treatment she needs to recover. 

Though they may not always acknowledge it, conservatives and libertarians generally disagree with all three points. For them, life is unfair and it is simply not the job of government to make life fair — or fairer. But, as it turns out, this “tough-luck” attitude is actually inconsistent with the theory of conservatism. Once again, conservatives’

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