The California National Guard has drawn the ire of the American public for a massive effort to reclaim reenlistment bonuses handed out a decade ago at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. On the one hand, military spending and political interference in reform efforts epitomizes the lack of accountability in government. On the other hand, the targeting of troops, who happened to have benefited from the misappropriation of funds by superiors seeking to maintain a professional fighting force under the stress of two causality-intense wars, and the crushing burden of tens of thousands of dollars imposed by the government on them represents everything people fear and resent about government.
In the wake of the 2008-2009 Great Recession, Americans were outraged to learn Wall Street executives, whose firms received billions in taxpayer dollars, continued to “earn” multi-million dollar performance bonuses due to contractual obligations. Where bankers made fortunes from the government and enjoyed impunity from legal repercussions, US troops agreed to continue to risk their lives and well-being over the period of years for a few thousand dollars in bonuses. Not only do these National Guard claw backs stink of economic and social injustice, the crushing burden being forced onto thousands of US troops demonstrates how frightening the ill-will of government can be.
Fortunately for the troops affected by these mass claw backs, political and military leadership is compelled to seek a resolution now that it has become a public issue. Unless Congress, the President, and the Defense Department have become so thoroughly dysfunctional that even the plight of US troops cannot force action, or the story dies, some form of relief should be on its way. It does not, however, solve the failure of government to offer a straightforward and timely means to resolve issues like those faced by the effected guardsmen. Before government starts crushing people and destroying their lives by causing undue hardships, government needs to undertake individual reviews before penalties are enforced instead of taking automatic actions against such large numbers of people.
That said, government is supposed to hold people accountable. It is supposed to punish wrongdoers and prevent the misuse of taxpayer dollars. It is not, however, supposed to place overwhelming burdens on individuals who find themselves in legal jeopardy due the actions of others or poorly conceived and enforced public policies. Government punishes wrongdoing to ensure citizens enjoy the freedom of a secure society. This is an essential role of government. In fact, it is the primary reason people tolerate and accept governmental authority. Unfortunately, it is when government stops providing protection from the threat of criminal elements and becomes the threat that people fear government.
Proper governance is always about achieving balance between anarchy and tyranny. No government will ever reach a perfect balance all the time while no government will sustain the necessary balance forever. What allows government to step back from oppressive actions, or overcome a failure to address an issue, is responsiveness. In a democratic system like that of the United States, political representation is supposed to ensure the interests of citizens are addressed, but a lack of responsiveness short-circuits the democratic process and undercuts proper governance. In the case of the National Guard claw backs, democracy may help improve the responsiveness of the US government, but there is a far greater need for more responsiveness.
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