Thursday, January 27, 2011

Government As Other

A bit of a rant here... Over the past few years there seems to be a pervasive and growing concept of government as "the other". I've had people describe government as a bunch of fat-cats sitting in back rooms smoking cigars.

Where does this image come from? It's clearly not accurate. If it were, Representative Giffords would never have been in the line of fire. Instead she was out meeting voters and getting ideas from them.

So what causes this concept of government-as-other? I mean, we're a government "of the people." My representative is a former high school teacher. There are a ton of similar representatives. I'm curious what possible facts this idea can even be founded on. I know a large number of people who are government employees. They work as teachers, as EPA staffers creating nation-wide initiatives to recycle electronics, as attorneys taking on abusive and dangerous employers, as welfare workers who help the neediest members of society and are constantly trying to fight waste (the other day I almost wasn't able to get a copy of a file because it cost the government $.30. Please don't tell me about run-away spending in welfare.). These are all people who are devoted public servants. None of them are perfect, I'm sure. But they're all doing very good and important work.

More important, they're all people. Just like everyone else. There is no "government-as-other." The government is us. What it does is what we tell it to do. We don't need rhetoric railing against government. That's the same as railing against people. That is what the tea party and small government advocates are doing. They're presenting an image of the world that says "government is this big bad entity that's wasting all of our money," never paying attention to the fact that they, their family members, roughly 20 million Americans employed in government and 300 million of their neighbors are "the government."

The rhetoric upsets me. It doesn't upset me because it's loud and filled with vitriol. It upsets me because it's founded on an absurdist reality. We can discuss government waste and excess spending. We can discuss whether entitlements have gone too far or what tax policy will lead to more jobs. We can discuss military expenditures and congressional budgets and anything else under the sun. But we can only discuss it when we're operating in reality.

And in reality, we are the government.

Where do we go
Where do we go now?


Durham said...

Your "rant" supposes the two (or more) concepts to be mutually exclusive. The government being of the people can coincide with abusive spending practices. Merely because low echelon workers have to manage costs does not negate high echelon government representatives of spending too much money on "necessary" services.

aaron said...

Do not confuse the effort and works of a few reps. like Ms. Gifford to be the same for the whole group. I will agree that there are a few representatives who host small "town hall" type meetings to get to know what their constituents want. But my experience has been that most will politely listen to what we have to say, and then move in the direction "they" feel best.

If this is truly a representative democracy, then let's have a straight up and down vote on some of the larger issues. Why bury ear marks in bills that have no relation so that pet projects can be funded? Pass the bills that have the public support, and leave the rest behind.

P'BO said the other night that he will veto and bill with ear marks. Let's hope that he holds true to his words (this time)

Joe said...

it's not that gov't workers are bad people or that they don't have sincere intentions.

it's that the people you are arguing with believe in voluntarism, and that almost everything that government does is coercion to a voluntarist.

it just so happens that voluntarism is also (arguably) the most efficient method of utility maximization, but to a true voluntarist that's beside the point. it's a moral issue before any of that: they believe coercion is wrong, every man governs himself etc.

i don't expect you to agree with it. clearly, more people are on your side that theirs. but you're only confusing the issue when you ignore that fundamental argument and jump straight "but you are the gov't!" they are part of the gov't, and as part of it they feel their duty is to tear it down as much as possible.

if you really, truly don't get where libertarians and minarchists are coming from at all, research anarchocapitalism. same thing, more extreme. probably easier to follow.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Durham - I'm not saying anything about abusive spending here. I'm not saying it doesn't exist. I'm just saying that an ideology of government as other is absurd.

Aaron - I'll agree that there are some reps who don't seem to be responsive to their constituents. But that doesn't mean government is "other." Especially since we can always vote those non-responsive individuals out of office. I'm not confusing the work of the "good" representatives to be, um, representative, of the whole body. I'm just using it as an example of how mistaken that sipping brandy/smoking cigars ideology is.

Joe - I understand the principles of the ideology; I understand the moral claims. I'm saying they're based on a wrong view of the world. Government as coercion is a view that ignores the reality of participatory government and that ignores the reality of necessary social organization. They make a mistake in understanding the way people work long before they get to the questions or morality and efficacy.

Durham said...

Joe's right, you are ignoring the actual argument. Hardly anyone outside institutions like the Mises Academy believe there should be no government. What is being argued where the proper place should be. Hardly any one thing of government as "other", they see it as out of control.

Seeing government as out of control and in need of reigning in is no different than the way you see corporations. The difference is the monopoly of force.

But really if you want to continue ignoring the actual argument, or using another perfectly theoretical view, which is impossible to attain, to frame you r arguments, don't be surprised if you don't convince.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Durham -

I'm not ignoring the argument. We're not even up to that point yet. You can't have a meaningful conversation about the appropriate size and shape of government without first establishing what the government is and what the government is for. I hear an awful lot of "government can't tell me that I have to buy health care! That's none of their business!" That's not a scope issue, that's a function-of-government issue.

I don't want to ignore the issue of what is and is not appropriate government action. Heck, I took that issue up in my previous post. I just want to have a meaningful conversation about it, and that's awfully hard to do when people are acting and talking like the government is some sort of seperate "run away" entity that is "out of control". Those very phrases imply that government is something seperate from the people it governs. They imply that the people aren't directing the government's actions. And if that's how you're talking about the subject then that means you aren't operating in the real world.

And please don't presume to tell me what I think about corporations or anything else.

Joe said...

matt - the government is an "other", it is a run away entity and it is out of control. just because it is "us" doesn't mean it can't be those things. we could say the same thing never using the word gov't:

"we" are an out of control run-away entity. "we" have too much power compared to each of us as individuals.

Joe said...

also, this: "I'm saying they're based on a wrong view of the world. Government as coercion is a view that ignores the reality of participatory government and that ignores the reality of necessary social organization. They make a mistake in understanding the way people work long before they get to the questions or morality and efficacy."

is where the argument is. someone who disagrees with you and takes the exact polar opposite view obviously won't arrive at the same conclusions as you. and what you are talking about today definitely follows from your quote rather than coming before.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Joe -

I don't know if you read what I put up in response over on Facebook, so I'll put it here too. I think it shows a little more where I'm trying to direct the conversation. I'm saying we're not yet to the point of discussing what is the most moral or most efficient way of operating a government. First we have to talk about what a government is and what its role is, then we can talk about the most moral or efficient execution of that role. We have to talk about human nature and the nature of government before we can even given meaning to the concept of, for example, "run away" government. What does "run away" government look like? Well, that depends on what the role of government is. I'll say this too: I don't think we'd disagree very much in the particulars. I know I'm projected to be a supporter of government spending and big budgets and the like, but those just aren't true. In the particulars, I'm very much about local governance, preferring market correction to market take-over, reduction of duplication and waste, etc. But how we get to those particulars philosophically is very very different. This rant was about philosophy.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Here's what I put up on facebook earlier:

It's a question of how you understand what government is. My claim is that there has been a growing trend of anti-government sentiment. Not anti-big government sentiment, but actual anti-government sentiment. And the rhetoric bears that out.

"Government shouldn't ever do X,Y, or Z" is a partial answer to the question "what is the role of government?" That is, it answers the question in the negative. What is the role of government? "Well I'll tell you what it isn't..." is the Tea Party response.

But to truly answer the question of the role of government you first have to ask, "what is government?" The answer is obvious and simple. It is the form of social organization. We have our political government. We have student government. We have corporate governance. We have government that forms everywhere there are a sizeable number of people who need to have their social actions organized. That's all it is. Wherever there are people to be organized, there is government. Government is a necessary function of human nature.

So with that in mind, the question becomes, "What is the role of government?" Well, since government is a function of people, the question is, what are people trying to do? And the answer is "be better." Be better morally, better physically, better economically, more happy, etc. If that's the goal of people, then the function of government is to serve as a tool unto that.

The role of government is to make people better.

Sometimes that's going to mean stepping out of the way and letting people succeed independently. Sometimes that's going to be gentle guidane and incentivizing. Sometimes that's going to be prohibiting dangerous activities or crimes. Sometimes that's going to be building roads or educating children or providing food support or cleaning up disasters or arresting criminals or fighting wars. Sometimes that will mean government does a lot. Sometimes it will mean they do nothing. (See my blog post before this latest one for more on these thoughts.).

But the view that government should, per se, be small, is a view that passes over the question of what government is. Or at least, it has wrongly answered that question by positing government as some sort of other. Something apart from people. But what moves government is people. It doesn't have a mind of its own.

If you believe that government is people, then anything people care about should fall under the perview of the government (again, this doesn't mean the government will act on it.). And if you believe that the government shouldn't do certain things because "that's not the role of government" then that means either 1. You don't think people care about those things or 2. You don't think people are the government, you think the government is other. From the rhetoric, it sure sounds like people are lining up in the camp that sees government as other.

I'm not saying a belief that government is most effective when small is a wrong view. I'm saying a belief that the government is other is a wrong view. It is founded on a misunderstanding of the nature of government and the nature of people.

Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe said...

"The role of government is to make people better."

i think this is 100% wrong. in your logic to get there you confuse "the people" and its goals with its individual components and theirs. while it may be the goal of the people to organize a better environment or whatever, matt novak "being better" is certainly not their goal (even if they could collectively agree on what that means). that's his goal. "our" goal is something like "agree to protect each other from coercion so that each of us can act according to his preference." and pretty much everyone will agree to that. but when you try to go further no one agrees on anything and you always have like half the people disagreeing with the "agreement" they are forced into.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Joe -

in your logic to get there you confuse "the people" and its goals with its individual components and theirs. while it may be the goal of the people to organize a better environment or whatever, matt novak "being better" is certainly not their goal (even if they could collectively agree on what that means). that's his goal. "our" goal is something like "agree to protect each other from coercion so that each of us can act according to his preference."

I think your suggestion of what our goal is begs the question. Why is "protect each other from coercion" the role of government? Because it enables those individual parts to thrive. That is, because it enables becoming better people. It isn't a confusion between the whole and the parts; there is no whole without the parts when it comes to government. In the abstract, government is a tool for achieving the goals of people, and the goal that people have is to become better. What separate goal could government have apart from people?

I think the claim you put forth on the goal of government is instructive. Yours can actually be broken down into a two-part claim. Part one is "the goal of government is to make people better" and part two is "the best way to do that is to focus on removing all coercion and letting individuals make all of their own successes and failures."

The form the government takes to achieve the goal is a very different question from the goal itself. And the form the government takes to achieve the goal is an open question. A society can decide to prioritize a very high "better" for a few select individuals (for example, monarchy), it can decide to prioritize an equal opportunity for becoming better (socialism), it can attempt to reflect the will of the masses (democracy), it can attempt to reflect the will of an individual (autocracy), etc.

Do you see how this is all playing out in my philosophy? You can accept both that the goal of government is to make better people and that the best way to accomplish that is to have as little government as possible.

In fact, you make several good arguments for why small government might be the best way to create better people. First, you point out that it's a challenge to collectively agree on what "better" even means. Second, you build on that by pointing out "you always have like half the people disagreeing with the 'agreement' they are forced into."

These are good arguments, and ones that deserve their own debate. But the point of this rant wasn't to get into questions of governmental form. It was to get into questions of purpose and identity.

We are the government. And the government's purpose is the same as our purpose: to make our lives better. How it does that is a different question.

Joe said...

yeah, i see your point. you can get to where i'm at from the starting point "let's maximize total utility" (which i assume is what you mean by "make people better"), but that isn't necessarily how i got there. it's kind of a chicken or egg thing.

does a man own himself only because that's the best way to maximize total utility? i mean, i guess you could make that argument. a lot of people would say no, that a man owns himself because that's morally right or natural or whatever, but i don't necessarily buy that either.

i think he owns himself because we agree that he owns himself, which we each do for various reasons, foremost that the rule benefits each of us, which is similar but not the same as the utility maximization reason.

basically, you assume that a group is capable of decision making and of having wants and needs and i don't. i'm at the more basic level of - individual people are capable of those things and of forming contracts. i think the group abstraction is much less useful since its positions are never unanimous, whereas an individual's always are.