Are There Obligations to Society?

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October 31, 2010 by D Stack

Do the people have obligations to their society? Here in Massachusetts there are three ballot initiatives in the upcoming (November 2010) elections designed to “put more money into your pocket”.

Question 1 would eliminate sales tax for alcohol sales in the state.

Question 2 would repeal a state law requiring a certain percentage of new housing construction be set aside for low and moderate income housing.

Question 3 would slash the state sales tax.


The first and the third questions would greatly reduce the income brought in by the state. It is difficult for me to imagine how this could not cause  massive cuts in services, trigger mass layoffs of public sector employees, and cause an influx of fees for everything from marriages to trash pickups. Some proponents of these initiatives would cheer those results while others would say that all savings could be met by eliminating “waste”. And I’m sure some would consider these services or employees to be “waste”. I myself just don’t see that. I could be biased given I have a wife who is an out-of-work schoolteacher so it is not an abstraction to me. Some people have an image of anyone who makes money from the public sector being some sort of lazy bum. I know my wife stayed far later than she had to after school nearly every day providing additional help to her students, many of whom are the kids who were written off as lost causes but went on to college with the help of dedicated teachers who would not give up on the kid whose parents are arrested, who becomes a teen mother, who associates with the wrong crowd, whose parents don’t care.

The second initiative would do away with affordable housing, ironically needed by many of those same public sector employees mentioned above. Too often police, firefighters, and teachers aren’t paid enough by the towns they serve to live in those towns.


At the end of the day I think most sincere supporters of these initiatives would say that putting additional money in your pocket puts you in control of your own destiny. It’s an appealing story. We’d like to believe that hard work will always pan out, that those who are unemployed or have lost their homes or have declared personal bankruptcy have done so due to their own personal failings.

I reject that line of thought. I think society has an obligation towards its members. That people should have the right to work at a reasonable wage, that they should be protected as much as possible from events outside their control. There should be no guarantee of a mansion, of a plasma television, of a new smartphone every six months. But reasonable work at a wage allowing for a decent living should be available. A medical emergency, a death, a car accident, a comet hitting the roof of the house, a plant closing, toxic waste dumped into the water, etc. should not be allowed to upend the lives of the  members’ of a good society. That makes me a liberal. And I’m fine with that as a label. I don’t think the government should pay for everything or regulate everything. But the government should impose those regulations needed for the good of its citizens. Of all its citizens, not just the wealthiest or for corporations. And it should pay for those things needed to guarantee people having as equal an opportunity as possible, from a military to keep its citizens safe to health care to keep its citizens healthy.

Back in my days as a “young conservative” I remember Rush Limbaugh declaring that there’s no such thing as government money, it’s your money. And I agree with that. It is our money. But I do think that while society has an obligation to its members, so to do its members to that society. All too often we want no government programs – except, of course, for the one that we need at any moment in time.



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October 2010
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