Balancing Responsibility & Liberty: The Yin & Yang of Public Policy

This is the text of the talk that I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson (UUCT) on July 30, 2017. (Watch the video here.)

Rep. Pamela Powers HannleyOur lives are made up of the choices we make. Although they range from the mundane to the profound, all of our choices bundled together determine balance or imbalance in our lives. Taoist philosophers believed that to lead a happy and tranquil life, one must live in balance with the forces of nature—the yin and the yang, the female and male, the good and evil.

In her book, Envisioning a New World, UU Rev. Rosemarie Carnarius applies the concept of balancing yin and yang to public policy. She suggests that we should try to consciously balance social responsibility—the yin—with individual liberty—the yang. It sounds so simple yet so profound. Like the Tao.

Carnarius goes on to point out that with the our country’s Declaration of Independence, “… for the first time in history, an individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was proclaimed as divinely ordained, unassailable, and constitutionally guaranteed.” A huge step for the common man.

Also, lest our new country devolve into the lawlessness of unbridled individualism, the framers of the Constitution balanced “the ascendency of the individual” with a “trust in humanity’s capacity for self-governance.”

Democracy—the voice of the people—would balance the rights of the individual.

There are “two values essential for a vibrant and congenial community: liberty and responsibility, I and We,” writes Carnarius. To help keep this delicate balance between the voice of the people and the rights of the individual, the founders also added a free press to educate the public.

Although we often hear that we are a country divided, when the political hype is stripped away, there is general agreement across the country on many basic issues, like affordable and equitable healthcare, quality public education, background checks for gun purchases, access to contraception, and guaranteed voter rights. Unfortunately, lawmakers continue to pass laws that are contrary to the voters’ wishes.

So, what happened to our utopia? Individual liberty and social responsibility are out of balance.

Big money politics, voter suppression, disinformation, and the slow death of the free press have adulterated our democracy and put special interests in charge. If you look at gun control, school choice, environmental regulations, the Affordable Care Act repeal plans, or the banking system through the prism of liberty versus responsibility, it is obvious that individual liberty is being promoted over the social responsibility and the common good. On the other hand, policies like abortion restrictions, voter suppression, or jail for minor drug offenses restrict individual liberty.

Gun Control

Congress has perpetually skirted meaningful gun reform, and nearly every bill that expands gun rights passes the Arizona Legislature. On Second Amendment, individual liberty is sacrosanct.

Unfortunately, tipping the scales so heavily toward individualism has made us less safe as a country. A recent CDC study looked at 10,000 homicides of women and found that half of these women were shot to death by their male partners.

Along the same lines, recent research on violent death in 22 high-income countries revealed that 90% of the women who died a violent death were killed by a firearm in the US. And 80% of the children who died a violent death were killed by a firearm in the US. This is unacceptable.

“… firearms are killing us rather than protecting us,” is what authors of the American Journal of Medicine article concluded. As a society, we need to find balance between the individual’s right to own a gun and the larger community’s right to safety. These mass murders, fatal traffic stops, and family tragedies must stop. We are better than this.

School Choice

School choice is another issue where individual liberty supersedes social responsibility. Special interest groups have sold the idea that parents are the best people to determine where and what their children should learn and who should teach them. Based upon this assumption, the Arizona Legislature has been chipping away at public education funding and diverting millions to the charter school system. More recently, the Legislature expanded Empowerment Scholarship Awards (ESAs) to private schools, religious schools and home schooling.

Does the supremacy of school choice over public education serve the common good? No. Diverting taxpayer funds to private and religious schools primarily helps wealthy children and families, while starving the public school system. Do parents have the right to choose their children’s schools? Yes. Are taxpayers obligated to pay for it? No. Subsidizing the wealthy while ignoring the needs of 99% is not a balanced policy.

Environmental Regulations

It has been 10 years since Al Gore’s groundbreaking film about climate change– An Inconvenient Truth. Since then, large carbon producers have spent billions of dollars casting doubt on climate science, according to a recent article in The Guardian.

The ongoing debate regarding whether or not climate change is real and human-caused has spilled over into the policy arena. Our federal government is currently controlled by climate deniers, many of whom campaigned on a platform of stepping back from international environmental agreements, dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), eliminating or weakening environmental regulations, reducing wildlife protections, reducing the number of national monuments and protected areas, and even opening up national monuments and parks to oil and gas exploration and drilling. Is this a plan that benefits the people of the United States or the world? Of course not.

Some of my colleagues in the Arizona Legislature believe that too many natural resources are being wasted because they are on protected land that can’t be commercialized. “There are too many trees. We don’t need that many trees,” one of them told me.

I grew up on Lake Erie. As a child, I have wonderful memories of weekends at the beach swimming and boating with my extended family. By the time I was in junior high school, the beaches of Lake Erie were strewn with dead perch that were killed by industrial pollution from the factories. There were so many dead fish on the beach that you couldn’t walk without stepping on them. That was the United States before the EPA. I don’t want to go back there. The EPA was an attempt at balanced policy because the people who make money from polluting the air and water are held accountable.

Affordable Care Act Repeal

Although it takes a back seat to the destruction caused by dismantling environmental regulations and ignoring climate change, the battle over healthcare insurance reform is a glaring example of the imbalance between liberty and responsibility in public policy.

Since the early 1900s, many special interest groups have fought successfully against meaningful health insurance reform in the United States. The Affordable Care Act was a major step in the right direction because it increased health insurance coverage dramatically; it eliminated pre-existing conditions; it eliminated gender-based price discrimination; it eliminated lifetime insurance caps; it mandated a basic healthcare package that focused on disease prevention; it capped health insurance company profits; and it included fees and taxes (primarily on the wealthy) to make it self-sustaining. The Affordable Care Act was an attempt as balanced policy.

As the ACA played out and insurance companies dropped out of the exchanges, it was obvious that reform was needed.

The current plans in Congress are: 1) Repeal, 2) Repeal and replace, or 3) Death by 1000 cuts to collapse the insurance system. Legislation that drops 20-30 million people off health insurance, eliminates the ACA’s progressive advances in preventive care and pricing, eliminates the individual mandate, and gives tax breaks to the rich, the insurance companies, and big pharma obviously values individual (and corporate) liberty over the common good.

A recent Associated Press story said that Americans overwhelmingly want nonpartisan healthcare insurance reform. The article said that nearly everyone wants changes to the ACA, but almost no one wants repeal without an equitable plan in place. The current ACA repeal plans are really tax cut plans—not insurance reform plans. Denying access to affordable healthcare to millions will result in unnecessary disease, premature death, and medical bankruptcy for some and increased wealth for others. The imbalance is glaring.

What if our laws were more just?

We hear on the news that we are a country divided. Social media fuels this narrative with countless stories of political and ideological stalemate– despite mounting societal needs. It’s no wonder people are upset.

The Taoists believe that to attain health, we must have balance. Without balance, there is dis-ease.

Are the anger, the bullying, the hatred, and the violence that we see just symptoms of our societal dis-ease? I touched on only four policy areas today. If you think about this concept of balanced policies, you’ll realize that many of our country’s and our state’s policies are out of balance because they are not aligned with needs or desires of the general public.

It’s no wonder people across the political spectrum say the country is headed in the wrong direction and that they feel left behind or left out.

The concept of balancing individual liberty with social responsibility seems so simple yet so profound.

Could balanced public policies calm the tensions in our country by bringing fairness to the lawmaking process?

It’s worth a try! It’s time to say “no” to special interest groups and “yes” to what’s good for the people.

An excerpt from this speech was published in the Arizona Daily Star:

Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley: In politics, individual liberty has been promoted over social responsibility