John Sheirer: ‘We the neighborhood’ feels like sound political philosophy

Last modified: Monday, July 14, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — On the Fourth of July, my wife Betsy and I walked the hilly driveway to our neighbors’ house. Using the key that they had left for us, we let ourselves in so we could water their plants and feed their cat while they were away for the holiday. When we’re away for a day next weekend to go to our granddaughter’s baptism, those same wonderful neighbors will walk our dog. We look out for each other. That’s what neighbors do.

For a vocal minority in America, unfortunately, the concept of being a good neighbor seems to have gotten lost. They’ve abandoned the civic ideal that government is, like our neighborhood, “we the people.”

When Betsy and I returned home from our neighborly errand, I signed onto Facebook and was promptly informed that I was a crazy liberal who would turn over control of everybody’s lives to an all-powerful federal authority. What prompted such an accusation? I had posted to Facebook an Independence Day message that I believe our government is “we the people” and can have a positive role in the lives of American citizens.

I had been involved in an extended Facebook debate about the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision. I said it was a loss for actual human beings and a victory for corporate power. I said that our government, “we the people,” should protect the rights of individuals, not treat inanimate corporations as if they could hold religious beliefs. That’s when someone chimed in with an assessment of my obvious liberal insanity.

This gentleman said all liberals were “sheeple” who wanted a tyrannical government to control everyone. He went on to say that “we the people” should refer to “God and the free market” as our nation’s source of freedom. I was dumbfounded that anyone could so badly misinterpret the first three words of the United States Constitution. “We the people” references the formation of our government, not religion or economics. That’s not liberal propaganda. That’s just a basic fact that we should have learned in our neighborhood middle school social studies class.

How has our country gotten to the point where corporations can be considered “people” who have religious views about women’s health? And how have Christian “religious” views been so corrupted, considering Jesus said nothing about contraception or abortion? Why are some people so offended by the thought that our government is “we the people”?

Have the people who worry about tyranny looked at corporations lately? Corporate taxes are the lowest they’ve been in decades while corporate profits have exceeded the pre-crash levels. Have corporations expanded American freedoms by creating good-paying jobs to foster a robust American middle-class? Of course not. They’ve outsourced our neighbors’ jobs, cut wages and benefits and fought commonsense health care regulations while parking their profits in offshore accounts.

By comparison, liberal government “tyranny” sounds far better than corporate tyranny. Liberal government fosters job creation, decent wages, a safety net in hard times and doesn’t let your boss impose religious beliefs. As tyranny goes, that’s downright neighborly — “we the neighborhood.”

On July fifth, Betsy and I climbed another hill — at one of the many wonderful state parks nearby. The trails are maintained by government employees who work hard to keep the parks beautiful and safe. In fact, these government workers had recently installed a set of rough wooden stairs at a particularly steep portion of the trail. My aching knees appreciated the new stairs, and my sense of “we the people” did as well.

Can you imagine what our neighborhood parks and trails would be like if corporations owned and operated them? We would certainly have to pay a hefty admission fee, not to mention have our view blocked by billboards attached to every other tree. We’d exit through a combination gift shop and fast-food chain.

The folks who rant about government tyranny confuse me. Would they call my neighbors “freeloaders” and tell them to hire someone from the free market to water their plants? That seems absurd, but if “we the people” is actually free-market capitalism, that’s what our neighborhood would be like. Good luck getting invited to the next backyard cookout. Maybe a corporation could sell them some new friends.

Don’t they know that government actually exerted far more control in the past? They’ve forgotten the days when our federal government broke up monopolies in favor of neighborhood small businesses and set the top income tax bracket at three times what it is today. Will they continue screaming about the horrors of government tyranny as corporations cut their jobs? How about when five free-market conservatives on the Supreme Court rule that their employer’s views trump their own convictions?

Betsy and I got a wonderful thank-you note from our neighbors for watering their plants and feeding their cat. I’m sure the corporate CEOs will be sending thank-you notes to the folks blaming the government any day now.

John Sheirer of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.