Sometimes science fiction and current issues of our day have a strange way of mixing, and so I’m going to go out on a big, cybernetic limb and discuss one of the all-encompassing themes I see in both science fiction and the real world.
Fear of the big “G.” Care to take a guess? Give yourself a gold star if you said ‘GOVERNMENT.’
Not too long ago I read the book Impulse by Steven Gould, an excellent SciFi story about a girl bequeathed the ability of teleportation by her genetically kick ass parents. Not surprisingly, this girl doesn’t have a childhood you would call normal – To the contrary, she and her parents have to be constantly on the run from corrupt, power-hungry people in positions of…you guessed it, power, and that often means people from one government agency or another. What government wouldn’t be tempted to kidnap a girl with special powers if they felt that said girl could be used as a tool for the right reasons? (i.e. Ends justifies the means).
And fear of government is alive and well in our society today. Look at fears (from both the right and the left) related to privacy rights, health care, you name it. Often those fears are justified too.
But I see another problem, too, and one that troubles me just as much – because as much as we want to admit it, we can’t always blame all the evils of the world on the big bad scapegoat of ‘government.’
Recently I had a heart to heart talk with a friend of mine. We’ll call him ‘Jake.’ We somehow managed to get onto the interesting topic of the bill in Arizona which involved certain businesses being able to discriminate against certain people in order to be true to their sincerely held religious beliefs.
Jake looked me hard in the eye, and he basically said, “Look, you can’t forbid businesses from discriminating against people. It’s a free marketplace. A business can do what it wants to do. If that business has bad practices, their customers will make them pay, the market will make them pay, and they’ll go out of business. Sooner or later, it’ll happen. And that’s that. Every time you have the Government set limits, every time you have the Government lay out a ground rule that everybody else has to follow, you can’t help but trample on people’s freedom. That’s bad. Period.”
In Jake’s world, businesses can and should be able to discriminate against women, minorities, gays/lesbians, you name it. And that’s OK, because the marketplace will sort it out. That’s OK, because the alternative, having the Government bulldozing people’s basic choices, THAT is the definition of a cure that’s worse than the disease.
I hope I’m doing Jake’s argument justice. I’m trying. I think he DOES have a point. Often government does try to do too much. But this is where I think science fiction and fearful fretting about Government are actually more of the problem than Government itself.
Government is, like anything else, a tool that human societies need. We use it to keep order, to help the welfare of people, to protect people from violence and give people the right to own things without fear that it’s going to be randomly taken from them.
But Government has to be more than that. Government has to be responsive to society’s needs and wants. Because we’re not just talking about Government, we’re talking about Democratic Government, foibles and corruption notwithstanding. When Government lays out a ground rule based on what’s right — based on concepts of common decency — that’s not a bad thing. That’s not a case where we need to wring our hands about all the individualistic choices that have been lost.
Governments have laws. Governments (at least most that I know of), don’t allow general murder. Now the serial killers and the psychopaths are most definitely having their freedoms curtailed in this situation. Does that make Government the problem here? I certainly hope not. On a similar note, if a government were to make a law that said to all businesses everywhere “No, you can’t discriminate against women, against minorities based on skin color, against people because of what gender they find attractive – In fact, you can’t discriminate based on sex (MALE or FEMALE) or race (WHITE or BLACK, etc.) and sexual preference (STRAIGHT OR NOT) and so on,” …would that really be such a terrible thing? I hope not. I think there’s a difference between having a healthy paranoia of government and being so ideologically terrified of government that you’d rather see people suffer on systematic and colossal scales than see government used as the tool it was meant to be.
So – getting back to the infamous Arizona law and whether businesses can discriminate based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. I don’t have a problem with businesses that stand for something, but what about when a business wants its personal belief system to affect my everyday life? What about when a business that would normally be open to the public – whether it’s a gas station, a restaurant etc., tells a certain he or she that they won’t serve him or her, i.e. when a gas station owner tells a woman that he doesn’t believe in her right to drive and therefore he will not let her get service (think conservative Islam here) — isn’t that a troubling reality?
When the business owner’s right to discriminate not only inconveniences but also tries to hack away at the basic identity of an entire class of people (gender, race, sexual preference), then we have a problem. It’s also not a problem for the marketplace to fix, and here’s why: when you have a society where people can proudly display their prejudices without fear of the law, you’re creating the very seeds that erode not just government but individual rights. If I have a daughter who goes to the local restaurant and is told to ‘get the hell out’ by a male restaurant owner because women aren’t welcomed, that’s not just a problem of the marketplace.
That’s a situation where as a father I might ask myself, how can I hurt this business? How can I make that business suffer for the harmful way they’ve treated someone I care about? Now multiply that by all the other times a gender-discriminating business might affect the lives of other families who have daughters, mothers, grandmothers, etc. Here’s my point: if government can’t act when a business or other significant group in the overall community is systematically discriminating against a decent-sized population of people, those people are going to take action. Maybe even violent action. If you had a daughter who lost her job because the new boss decided he didn’t like women, and you had no legal recourse, what would you do? Would you be tempted to do something about it? Something not quite legal? (because after all, discrimination isn’t the government’s business).
It’s easy to say that government is the problem, but the truth is that government is an outlet people turn to when deep schisms impact our society. As a tool, government can help repair those schisms or at least get people to work out their conflicts in manageable ways. The marketplace doesn’t do that.
Ultimately if you truly DO want to say that government should always, or almost always bow to the superiority of “the marketplace,” then I think the reality is that something in your definition of marketplace is deeply flawed. The “marketplace” isn’t just a simple formula of Human Society – Government = Marketplace. Those connections blur, and the government, at least in a Democracy, is part of that marketplace of ideas, advocacy, and change which is bombarding society day in and day out. Government is a tool, and as a tool it’s best at setting basic ground rules, creating a playing field on which all people can have a fair chance. Notice the key word: Chance. Sometimes the government too much tries to stack the deck in one group’s favor, and when it does, that’s wrong. But I’m tired of hearing the paranoid refrain, sometimes in both science fiction and even in reality today, that Big Government is out to get you.
Sometimes skewed beliefs can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like any aspects of society, government can be used as a tool for good or for ill, and it’s a tool not to be used lightly. But it’s definitely a tool, and tools are made to be used, not shunted or thrown away in some dark corner. If we treat government like that, then I think you’ll find that the losers in that kind of government-free society will eventually engineer their own revolution and install the very kind of government all of us most fear.