What Is the Government? - Why We Need a New Outlook
This story begins years ago in my AP U.S. History class at Pinecrest.
My class was learning about the Second World War, and we reached the topic of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Heated debate was par for the course in this class, so inevitably an argument erupted over whether those bombings were justified.
The class was evenly divided and quite passionate, and few minds were changed, so we agreed to disagree.
Something struck me about that debate, however, that transformed my outlook. Every student, proponent or opponent, described the bombing possessively. "We bombed Hiroshima," said even the most ardent pacifist.
This struck me as odd. No one in the room had any role in the bombing of Hiroshima. I certainly did not make that decision, and would not have done so, so why should I use language implying that I had?
The experience got me thinking: Why do we refer to everything the government does as "ours"? The language is everywhere: "our" national debt, "our" military budget, "our" entitlement programs. This extends even to government initiatives that the public dislikes. The Iraq War, for example, is judged a failure by the majority of Americans, yet it is still universally referred to as "our" war in Iraq.
The government, it would seem, is us.
This notion is, of course, absurd. The government is just another institution within society; it is no more "us" than any business or nonprofit.
Some may argue that the government was clearly designed to be an instrument of the people. Does the Constitution not begin with the words "we the people"? Is the concept of a republic not based around the notion that the people are sovereign?
Certainly the United States government appropriates the language of popular sovereignty, but this is true of virtually all modern governments, no matter how autocratic. China's government is officially the "People's Republic of China." Is the government of China thus the Chinese people? Surely a government does not represent the people simply because it claims to do so.
But unlike China, some will say, the United States government IS a republic. Americans vote their leaders into office. Does this not make the government their institution?
It is true that the masses elect the government, but the same is ultimately true of all other institutions in society. After all, the people "elect" Walmart by choosing to shop there, and indirectly choose who sits on the Walmart board of directors. (If people stop shopping at Walmart, it's only a matter of time before the shareholders clean house.) Does that make Walmart us?
Indeed, the government is arguably less democratic than other institutions. If a charity doesn't do what the people want it to do, no one will donate to it. If a business doesn't pay attention to what consumers want, it will promptly go bankrupt. But if the government fails to do what the people expect? The politicians who made the decisions may be voted out years later, only to be replaced by politicians from the other party who behave in much the same way.
The government is not the populist institution it claims to be. This is not an anarchist argument; one can accept this while still believing that government is necessary. The state might well serve an irreplaceable function in society, but there should be no illusions about what it is. Necessary or not, it is not "us."
This fallacy that the government is "us" has seriously impaired our ability to check that government's growth. The public seems to be aware of the dangers of runaway government, and polls show that most Americans want cuts in military and entitlement spending, yet no one seems willing to take action.
If we are ever to solve these problems, we must move beyond protest and actively deny the government the means to carry out its absurd plans.
A tax strike, whereby the public refuses to pay taxes en masse until the government changes course, is in order. But how can we starve the beast if we all still believe it's "our" beast?
The government is not "us." We will never make progress unless we understand that.
Andrew Soboeiro is a rising sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill and a graduate of Pinecrest High School. Contact him at andrew@ thepilot.com.
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