Making Tough Decisions

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October 22, 2010
by David T. Koyzis

Practical politics frequently frustrates idealists. While some people crave the power and prestige that accompany public office, the office-holders themselves have the unenviable task of trying to balance the claims of a variety of legitimate interests in an effort to do justice to all. But as the old cliché goes, you can’t please everyone.

Last week Michael Gerson weighed the recent decisions made by the United States and other countries to support the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. He applauded the US commitment of $4 billion over the next half decade, the largest of any contributing country, but noted that many advocates had hoped for a more sizeable pledge, without which the Fund will have difficulty fulfilling its current responsibilities. Indeed the fight against disease is eminently worthy of support, especially when the lives of so many are at stake.

Nevertheless, the numbers of worthy recipients of American foreign aid are great and continually rising. Global efforts to address poverty, environmental degradation, climate change, and the financial crisis all demand monetary support as do many other noble projects. Advocates of these causes each bring to the table a sense of urgency—that governments must act now to confront these issues in order to prevent further calamity.

Meanwhile, at home many of the “unsustainable entitlement commitments” that Gerson mentions were originally established as part of a national effort to address similar domestic ills, such as poverty, a lack of financial security in old age, and the high cost of health care, especially for the working poor and the retired. Reducing entitlements would have a negative impact on the most vulnerable in our own communities.

What then does public justice demand of government? To begin with, failing to fund worthy efforts at the levels advocates desire is not unjust as such. Governments necessarily make tough decisions as to which endeavors to fund and at what levels. During times of fiscal austerity, such weighing in the balance becomes more difficult. There is good reason to heed the apostolic injunction to pray for our rulers (1 Timothy 2:1-2) because the decisions they make affect the very neighbors we are commanded to love.

Furthermore, such global ills as “pandemic disease, human trafficking, terrorism and criminal gangs” are often associated with the “failed states” to which Gerson calls our attention. Where local governments are not themselves doing public justice, pouring money into such countries—even to serve critical public health needs—may only exacerbate rather than alleviate problems. Thus, a global strategy to combat these evils calls, not only for financial support, but also for long range policies to address the dysfunctional governance in these states.

According to the Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines for Government and Citizenship, “The government of a political community bears responsibility to legislate, enforce, and adjudicate public laws for the safety, welfare, and public order of everyone within its jurisdiction.” Among modern political philosophers, most of whom have generally seen politics as subsidiary to economic interests, there is a minority tradition that understands political life to have an integrity of its own for which there can be no adequate substitute. The Center stands in this tradition. Many of the ills Gerson wants us to combat could be lessened, if not altogether resolved, by strengthening governing institutions where they are currently weak or lacking.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003).

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.