Resolution Adopted by the CCAR

THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT:
PROPERTY RIGHTS, STATE'S RIGHTS, AND THE PUBLIC INTEREST

Adopted at the 106th Annual Convention of the
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Jerusalem, Israel
March, 1995 / Adar II, 5755

Background

The Jewish tradition has long recognized not only the importance of government, but also the positive role that governments can play in establishing a society of tzedek v'shalom, justice and peace. Since the Talmudic era, our community has created and supported public institutions and governmental bodies designed to protect the common good, recognizing that individual rights need to be carefully balanced with communal responsibilities. Thus, for example, Jewish communities have for over 1500 years instituted a series of regulations to provide adequate health care, education, and environmental health hazard protections for all their residents. Under such principles as "hefker bet din hefker" (that which the courts declare ownerless is ownerless), the government can regulate the use of what is generally considered to be private property if a substantial communal benefit is expected.

The history of Jews in the United States and Canada has reinforced these commitments. While we have witnessed abuses of governmental power, we have also experienced our government's ability to "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." The Reform Movement has long appreciated and supported governmental efforts to protect civil rights and liberties, health, safety, education and the environment.

Balancing rights with the interests of the public in general is a complex, ongoing task, one that requires constant readjustments. Some in our society today feel that federal governmental powers need to be curtailed in the name of enhancing property rights and state's rights. As concerned as we are with the protection of these rights, we believe that these concerns can be adequately addressed without crippling the ability of our public institutions to provide for the common good.

Some of those in this debate, however, claim that all federal powers should be restricted as much as possible, that governments can do no good, and that the many protections our government has provided should be dismantled. They plan to do so through a series of "anti-regulatory" legislative proposals. These proposals have fallen into three major categories: "takings," "unfunded mandates," and cost-benefit/risk analysis requirements. The various forms of "takings" legislation, according to a letter signed by 36 State Attorneys General "purport to implement constitutional property rights protections, but in fact they promote a radical new takings theory that would severely constrain the government's ability to protect the environment and public health and safety." "Unfunded mandates" reform has many merits, but while concern with undue burdens imposed by the federal government is legitimate, proponents of this legislation often fail to recognize that states share in the responsibility to protect health and safety and receive a great deal of non-specific federal funding. Cost-benefit/risk analyses can be useful tools in guiding governmental priorities, but they often fail to consider social justice effects and societal benefits that are not easily quantified.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Central Conference of American Rabbis:

1. Reaffirm our support for the positive role that government can play in civil rights, health safety, education, and environmental protection for all persons in the United States and Canada.

2. Oppose the categorical elevation of property rights above all others, because we recognize that benefits to society have accrued when property use is appropriately regulated, such as in protecting civil rights, health, safety, education, and the environment.

3. Call for sensitivity to the financial needs and concerns of state and local government in all legislation that seeks to protect the common welfare, recognizing that the presence of an "unfunded mandate" is not, in and of itself, grounds for opposing legislation.

4. Call for consideration of the social justice effects of a policy when using techniques such as cost-benefit and risk analysis, and urge that governments must not utilize these techniques as the only guidance for morally complex decisions.

5. Call on our congregations to engage in a renewed discussion of the responsibility of individuals to the community, and of the positive role that our public institutions, including government, can have in working toward the common good.