Public policy in any society has both normative and empirical dimensions. The normative dimension tells us who we want to be, while the empirical dimension tells us who we are. The difference between these two dimensions may be thought of as the gap between desire (or pretense) and reality.
Let me give a few examples. Our normative goal is to provide a good education for every American. When we take an empirical look at how we’re doing, however, we find that many young people are not, in fact, getting a good education. Classes are overcrowded, many students drop out of school early, and many who stay in school slide through without even learning the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic. Even worse, many students leave school without having developed skills in critical thinking, which has profound consequences for our democracy.
Another normative goal in our society is for every person to receive equal justice under the law. But when you look at the statistics, it seems to me that the rich get far better treatment in our legal system than the poor. Death rows are filled with poor people, while the rich who commit similar crimes are often saved from paying the ultimate penalty, and sometimes from paying any penalty at all, by the work of high-priced lawyers. It is rare that corporate executives who are caught cheating the public and their employees are brought to account for their crimes.
Still another normative goal of this country is embodied in the words of the Declaration of Independence, where it talks about “all men being created equal.” We know that even as the Declaration was being written most of the founders of the country were slaveholders and the only people allowed to vote were the same color, gender and social class as the founders, that is, white male landowners. It has been a painful struggle in this country, and the struggle continues, to reach the normative goal of treating people equally under the law.
It seems to me that citizens in a democracy should take on the challenge of examining where we fall short of achieving our stated goals and should develop strategies to move our society from where we are to where we profess we wish to be. In developing such strategies, it is necessary to identify and overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving our stated goals.
A number of stated goals of our country are set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution, arguably our most important founding document. I’d like to read you this one paragraph Preamble:
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
This paragraph provides an excellent starting point for considerations of public policy. It tells us first, who it is that seeks to accomplish these goals: “We the people.” That is where the ultimate power to achieve these goals should reside. It is a power that can be delegated to elected representatives, but it cannot be given away. Without a watchful, caring and astute citizenry, democracy will wither and fade. So, each of us, as a part of that civic body “We the people,” has a share of the responsibility for the future of our country and also the world.
The goals in the Preamble are lofty: “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” We should note that it is possible for these goals to be in conflict or at least to compete for resources. For example, there is certainly tension between providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare. This is an area of public policy that deserves particular attention. The Congress currently allocates to the military more than half of the portion of the budget that it has discretion to distribute each year, while many Americans lack adequate nutrition, shelter, healthcare and education. In addition to the more than $500 billion that goes to the military directly, there are also the resources needed to support the maimed and traumatized veterans and to pay the ongoing interest on the large portion of the national debt attributable to past wars.
We also need to ask ourselves the question of whether the “common defense” can be maintained by military means alone. The world has changed since our country was founded in the 18th century. Today terrorism is a far more realistic threat to the people of the United States than is the military force of another country, but we are still behaving in many respects as though our security can be assured by military force. If a terrorist group were successful in obtaining a nuclear weapon and transporting it to an American city, it could destroy the city, just as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed more than 60 years ago. That is why I am a strong proponent of a public policy that seeks total nuclear disarmament. This would have to be done in a phased, controlled and verifiable manner, but doing so is virtually the only way to assure that nuclear weapons will not end up in the hands of terrorists who will use them against US cities.
I want to say a few more words about nuclear weapons because I feel that they are they greatest threat to our common defense, common welfare and common future. Our leaders argued until recently that our country maintained nuclear weapons in order to deter a potential adversary from attacking us with nuclear weapons. Obviously, if we could succeed in abolishing nuclear weapons worldwide, these weapons would not be needed for deterrence. Further, equally obviously, these weapons provide no deterrence value against terrorists who cannot be located to retaliate against, or who are suicidal and don’t care if they are retaliated against.
A few things that are not so obvious about nuclear weapons are that they are anti-democratic, extremely costly and cowardly. Nuclear weapons concentrate power in the hands of a single individual. Mr. Bush talks about using them preemptively. What if he decided to use a nuclear weapon or to initiate an all-out attack with nuclear weapons? There would certainly be no democratic checks and balances once the missiles were launched.
The US alone has spent over $6 trillion on nuclear weapons and their delivery systems since the onset of the Nuclear Age. I think its worth considering what this country might be like and how it might be viewed in the world if even a modest portion of this enormous amount had been spent in improving the common welfare and helping other countries to improve theirs.
Finally, nuclear weapons may be the most cowardly weapon ever created. You deliver them from afar, and in reality a country would only choose to use them on a country unable to retaliate in kind. These weapons kill massively and indiscriminately: men, women and children; young and old; healthy and infirm; civilians and combatants. They are certainly a coward’s weapon, and that is a bad match if you happen to have cowards and fools in high office, which experience suggests cannot be rule out.
In the end, it is not weapons or technology that makes a country great. Greatness exists in ideals and in people. We are a country with great ideals, but we are not living up to them and too many of our people do not have the dignity of having their basic needs met. It is a disgrace that the administration would request and the Congress would provide tax cuts for the rich while more than 40 million Americans are without healthcare. If we truly want to be a great people, we must invest in our people and we must be more generous in our interactions with the world. Our greatness will not be measured by wealth or military might, but by healthy and well educated citizens. The most important measure of a country’s greatness is the way it treats the least among them: the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed.
We have made it public policy in our country that international law is part of the law of our land. You’ll find this in Article VI(2) of our Constitution, where it says that “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land.” One such treaty to which the US is a party is the United Nations Charter, in which it makes war illegal except in cases of self-defense (and then only for a limited period of time before turning the matter over to the UN itself) or when authorized by the United Nations Security Council. In the case of the war against Iraq, neither of these conditions was met and therefore the war was and remains illegal. Our young men and women are being sent to fight and die in an illegal and aggressive war. This is a tragedy for the families of these young people, and shameful for our country. It is bad public policy to allow leaders to commit aggressive warfare without any repercussions. Leaders should be held to account.
Another treaty that is the law of our land is the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which we agreed to engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament. In the year 2000, the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty agreed unanimously to 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament. Unfortunately, the United States under its current leadership not only has not fulfilled any of these 13 steps, but it has been the major obstacle in the world to progress on achieving them.
Other treaties that should be the law of the land, but which this administration has refused to support are the Kyoto Accords on Global Warming, the Treaty for an International Criminal Court, and the treaty banning landmines. By our lawless and unconstructive behavior in the international community, the United States has lost much of the respect and good will it had earned by its earlier support for the United Nations, by its generosity in the Marshall Plan, and by its support for international law in general and human rights law in particular.
Our public policies say a lot about us. They tell us who we are as opposed to who we pretend to be. Thomas Jefferson thought that each generation must have its own revolution. I think that we need not go that far, but that each generation must rethink its values and decide what it wants to be. Because of our might and background, US leadership is needed in the world, but it must be leadership that reflects the best of who we are onto a broader stage. We need leadership that is rooted in law, diplomacy and human dignity. We need a society in which force is not a first resort, but a last resort. To achieve such a society we need citizens who are educated to think for themselves and to think critically, and we need leaders with wisdom and humane values who will emerge from such a thoughtful citizenry.
Public policy should encourage a good public education for all citizens and the development of good citizens who take civic responsibility seriously. To move our society in this direction, we need to make some important changes in public policy that will include the following points:
1. Devoting more of our public resources to public education, with the goal of creating an informed citizenry capable of making intelligent decisions on issues of public importance.
2. Campaign finance reform, with the goal of taking the influence of big money and corporate preferences out of politics.
3. Increasing the accountability of public officials who violate the public trust.
4. Imposing appropriate legal penalties for white collar crime, with the goal of encouraging integrity in corporate leaders.
5. Providing an economic safety net for all citizens who fall below the poverty line.
6. Being good international citizens by providing leadership in both word and deed in upholding international law, including the United Nations Charter, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Principles of Nuremberg, the International Criminal Court, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions and many other important treaties.
The battles for the future of our country will be fought not in far-off lands and not with weapons of mass destruction, but on the field of public policy within our country. The leaders in these battles will be those who accept the responsibilities of citizenship and leadership. I encourage you to be courageous, compassionate and committed in playing your part.