14 September 2011
How often we hear statements like these in today’s political debate: “Government can’t create jobs. It is not the role of government to decide how we spend our money. Churches, not government, should assist the needy. Government regulation is destroying America. Get the government out of our schools.” If government seems as bad as all this, it would be good to be sure we understand what government is at its most basic level. What exactly is government?
Government is how people are organized on the largest scale to get things done. The exact way in which people are organized and for what purpose they are organized determines the type of government they have. In an authoritarian government, rulers command the people as they see fit to pursue goals that they choose. In contrast, a democratic government performs collective action by consent of the people to forward a common purpose. In both types, the essential principle is the same: government is the largest social structure that works to get things done.
This definition of government holds true in whatever kind of society or in whatever era of history you happen to live. If you find yourself in a great modern nation like America with all of its bureaucratic agencies, that is the government. If you live in a neolithic tribe ruled by a council of elders, that is the government. If you live in an old stone-age family group of hunter-gatherers that is commanded by a patriarch, that is the government. Understanding government in this light, you see that if you opposed government per se you would be against all forms of human organization. For if you abolish the largest social organizing principle, the next one down in the hierarchy becomes the government. Tear down each successively smaller organizing principle until all social organization is gone, and you will have reached a true state of anarchy – no government and no collective achievements. It’s every man for himself.
As radical as such an absolutist, anti-government position seems under analysis, it has become popular in recent decades to condemn government as a monster on our backs. Grover Norquist, the political strategist who demands signed pledges from every right-leaning politician, says that he wants to reduce government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Ronald Reagan, capitalizing on the anti-establishment zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s, said “government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.” Notice that he did not say the government is the problem, as if there were something about a specific government that might be fixed. Rather, it was a general condemnation of the very fact of government as the source of our social ills. Whether this was sloppy rhetoric, careless hyperbole or his honest belief, President Reagan ushered in a populist era in which it is beleved that there is nothing government can do well, and that there is no role that shouldn’t be taken away from government.
The implicit anarchy of Norquist and Reagan does not survive five minutes of rational thought. Without government we cease to have a society and we return to the nasty, brutish and short lives of our earliest primate ancestors. No veneer of civilization stops you and me from killing each other over who gets the banana. Certainly there would be no overalls, because nothing would prevent a competitor from bombing our overalls factory. But even if you adopt a softer anti-government position that says there shouldn’t be a federal government, you still get a very grim result. There could be no large scale commerce because there is no Interstate Highway system for distributing products. We would never have landed on the moon or taken glorious pictures of the cosmos with the Hubble space telescope. There would be no Hoover Dam preventing the periodic and disastrous flooding of the Colorado River. There would be no Civil Rights laws that prevent enslavement or other crimes against the natural freedoms of men.
In our present economic catastrophe, reasonable and well-intended people are today suggesting government measures that will organize our national efforts to employ the idle and fix what’s broken. That’s what government is for. Those against such measures easily slip into anti-government purism, repeating the same old tired, unthinking bromides unworthy of utterance by overalls-wearing Americans who understand that greatness requires cooperation and teamwork. The government is not necessarily a monster on your back, it can be a friend on your side.