By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
What are our government’s responsibilities to its citizens? It was a comment by a Pennsylvania lawmaker that made me think about this question. Rep. Jim Cox, chairman of the House Labor and Industry Committee, complained that Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration should not be so focused on public safety. What he actually said is that it’s not the government’s job “to try to keep us safe.”
What is our government’s job? What obligations does it have to its citizens? Cox was clearly thinking about Wolf’s response to the COVID crisis. I’m not sure if Cox is aware that this is not the first health crisis to close theaters, stores, community pools, etc. In the past, this was usually legislated on a local level, for example, during the influenza pandemic in the early part of the 20th century and the polio pandemic during the 1950s. In those cases, the government took very seriously the need to protect its citizens.
But the question is an interesting one because there does need to be a line between what the government can tell us to do and what decisions should be left to individual citizens. Take ingredient listings on foods. The government shouldn’t tell us which foods to eat. After all, if we want to live on fast food and potato chips, that is our choice. But it is important for those of us who want to eat healthy to know what is in our food. Requiring a list of ingredients empowers us to make our own decisions, but we can’t do that unless the government requires businesses to add those lists to food packaging. Don’t forget the reason behind most food regulations were the revelations that rotten and diseased meat had been sold to American citizens. Sausages/hot dogs were filled with sawdust because there were no laws prohibiting its use. To protect its citizens, the government forced the food industry to change its practices.
The Constitution of the United States notes that one of the duties of the government is to promote the general welfare. That means protecting our citizens, even if doing so impedes on some individual rights. After all, we don’t have the right to kill someone or steal someone’s property, no matter what they have done to us. We have to follow traffic laws. Without those laws, the roads would be a nightmare and even more people would die in car accidents than do now. You could make a case that we should be allowed to drive however we want. They’re our lives at stake, aren’t they? The problem is that not only are our lives at stake: we are risking others’ lives without their permission. That violates the general good. We can’t hunt deer in urban or suburban areas, or spill toxic chemicals into our rivers for those same reasons.
In my mind, one of the most important things a government does is “to try to keep us safe.”Who or what else will watch out for us? Who or what else will care about our heath and safety? The system doesn’t always work because of flawed individuals, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to protect everyone who lives in our country.
This protection is part of a social contract between a government and its citizens. That contract exists not only in the secular realm, but in the religious one. I’ve been speaking about American law, but Judaism features laws that have the same purpose: they promote the general good and protect members of the community. It is a religious (biblical) commandment to build a fence around the flat roof of a building so people won’t fall off. If we dig a hole on private property, we still have to make certain that hole is covered at night so no one – even a trespasser – falls into it and hurts themselves. These are just two examples of how Judaism is concerned with the way our actions can affect and/or harm others.
The pandemic is not yet over and I want my government to do what it can to keep me, my family, my friends and my community safe. I also want the government to protect us from building collapses, polluted air, contaminated water.... The list could go on for pages. The freedom we lose pales next to the loss of life that might otherwise occur.