Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.92.4: THE CASE FOR GOVERNMENT

V092-04_0clip_image002_006

 Preamble:  Michael Tomasky recently  wrote that “Republicans profit from Americans’ childish hatred of government – and Democrats lose every time by staying silent. [Democrats] need to follow Chuck Schumer’s example and take on the issue.”

Here’s what Schumer said: “Together, Democrats must embrace government. It’s what we believe in; it’s what unites our party; and, most importantly; it’s the only thing that’s going to get the middle class going again. If we run away from government, downplay it, or act as if we are embarrassed by its role, people won’t vote for our pale version of the Republican view; they’ll vote for the real McCoy.”

 It reminded me that I had written some pieces  [ 43.2   42.3] on the subject back in the Summer of 2007 that the Obama administrations have done little if anything the status of it: the Republican “childish hatred” of the government they spend billions to gain offices in, is as virulent as ever.  Back then I wrote in these pages:

If Bush and Cheney and their intellectually-challenged supporting cast aren’t enough to make you mutinous, then the loyal-to-the-bunker Republican congressman and wimpy Democrats, incompetent bureaucrats, and a Supreme Court with Scalia, Thomas and Alito will turn you anarchistic.  One wonders whether we could handle things better without them, without government altogether.

We could join those fringy, true believer socio-political sects that inhabit the simple-minded worlds of Libertarians, Scientologists, Ayn Rand Objectivists and their like.  They abhor government, and they can be bi-partisan because they don’t need a jerk like Bush and his administration to rationalize their abhorrence, they are categorical about it.  They have their so-called philosophical bases for their contempt for government, but basically they don’t like people telling them what do (laws) and they don’t like having to pay for governmental services (taxes).

These can be rather exasperating people to deal with because they are arguing for nothing, or what they regard as the some fundamental principle, or some narrow-minded notion of what is the essence of human behavior.  They are never in power, so there is no historical basis from which to counter their positions, so they sit and throw bottles from the intellectual cheap seats, unshakable in their belief that they are too correct to be accepted.  Sometimes their rhetoric is co-opted by the political right, especially with “government should be small as possible and never raised taxes.”

Every so often I would encounter one of these dolts in a class at the university, wondering what the hell they were doing there when they already “had all the answers” because they had a well-thumbed copy of Ayn Rand, L. Ron Hubbard, or F.A. Hayek, the only sources they needed.  They rarely had any original thoughts and were devoid of critical faculties.  That they turned up in a school of government, where I taught, made me wonder about their sanity.  Maybe they were like Bible-thumpers in Iraq.

But, in their simple-minded way, they performed a small service.  They let us know that there were still people out there like them.  Still people who never got the idea that government isn’t always (although we have proof that it can be) a cabal like the Bush administration.  And they do force us to re-think and rationalize the premises for government from time to time.  They basically want the absolute right to do anything, anytime, anywhere; so they are like children not yet potty-trained, something I’ll have more to say about a couple of paragraphs below.

They also, particularly, the conservatives, seem to be living in another era, like the 18th Century.  Eighteenth century “classical liberalism” was actually the equivalent of what we call “conservatism “these days.  The classical liberals thought there was little need for government other than to provide defense and to enforce contracts, the latter of which they thought sufficed to handle almost all social relationships at the time.  Fine, if your society is a bunch of farmers and small villagers.  But if you are going to have an urban-industrial society things are going to get a lot more “public” and lot more complicated and you are going to need some people whose job it is to handle some of these complications and manage the “public dimension” of society.

Rational human beings can and must have government if we are to enjoy the benefits of economically-integrated and interdependent societies.  There will always be an argument on how much government, but having no government is to opt for a return to hunting and gathering.  There will always be people who will say they don’t like government and we don’t need it.  They fall into two categories:  Stupid and hypocritical; some people fall into both.  The stupid ones just can’t figure out that you can’t have a society of the type that they often have a heavy reliance upon unless you have government; they prefer their ideology to the reality of their lives.  If they live on the tenth floor and there is a fire they can’t call on a bucket brigade to bail them out—they need a full-fledged, taxpayer-paid, fire department to get them out.  Or they need to have government building codes and inspectors to give them a building that has a fire escape, or alarms or sprinkler—required by law.  Of course, if these government functions prevent a fire, they just think they could have done without it. The con man always says that he couldn’t be successful if people weren’t greedy.  There’s some truth to that.  But some of our con men become large corporations.  So should government have no role in protecting little old ladies being fleeced by the Enrons?[1] The anti-government types will carp about interfering bureaucracies and such, until the little old lady is their grandmother.

I used to have a segment in my Planning Theory Seminar where I called on some of the studies of communes that appeared in the 1960s.  Odd to recall that it was hippies and stoners who were anti-government in those days.  I used to tell the class that the commune movement failed because they wanted to run their communes with the “do your own thing” ethos—no rules was to be the rule.  Well, doing your own thing meant to some doing nothing, and to others it meant you could (excuse me) poop wherever you wanted to.  That wasn’t so good for the next person who walked out in bare feet.

So, soon enough some people with (excuse me) poop between their toes had to call a meeting and say:  We need to have a designated place where people “do their business.”[2[ That was the beginning of city planning, I would say.  It was not nearly so auspicious as bringing two stone tablets down from a mountain (but then the people of Moses just wandered around the desert for decades apparently pooping without consequence) [3]  Then they had to say “we’ll have to assess everybody one ounce of pot to pay somebody to dig and maintain the latrine, and that was the beginning of taxation.  Some people didn’t like it, and they were called “Stinkfeet” and had to leave town.  When this happens you begin to need people who will take up the responsibility for making rules because you can’t have a plebiscite every time you need to make a rule for the community—yikes, this means politicians, the very thing you wanted to get away from by going out into the woods and starting a commune named “Freepoop.”  Before you know it you will have people running around with slogans like “It’s the Poop, Stupid.” So, only stupid people think you can have a modern society without rules, regulation and politics.[4]

Then there are the hypocrites.  First of all I am not talking here about the major hypocrites in American society—the Republicans.  You know, the people who are for small government, but have created the biggest debt in history; who are for the little man, but give tax cuts to the rich and fight unions and minimum wage increases, and immigration; who are for “states rights” but have Federal authorities bust legal marijuana clinics in California, and try to overturn death with dignity legislation in Oregon; who support Agribusiness but not small farmers, and on and on.  Not those hypocrites—but I had to mention them for clarification.

I’m talking about anyone who uses a tax-supported facility, infrastructure, or service, or who benefits from the work of a government employee, including the military, when it is used properly and appropriately, and then bitches about it.  Oh, I know that they will say that anything that government does can be privatized—that the wonders of the marketplace and the “invisible guiding hand of providence” [5] would take care of things just fine.  Sure, I can already see private enterprise embarking on years of profitless basic scientific research, building universities, labs and such, with the prospect of coming up with a blockbuster drug (and then regulating themselves); or running electrical lines out to rural areas where the cost exceeds the profits, or Blackwater being willing to take over for the Army—but at the wages the Army is paid.  Sure, I’d believe that.  In a week they’d be selling stinger missiles to skinheads.  And who is going to pay the wages for a privatized, say, Food and Drug Administration—Big Pharma?  Big Agribiz?  Sure, I’ll believe that.  And who would pay for the business of controlling polluters, or builders who build your home with faulty electrical systems, or make toys that poison or injure your kids?  Where’s the big profit in that?  I can go on, if you like.

If the Libertarians and the rest of the no-government types want to join in the critique of the way government operates—or more accurately, the way those who get elected operate it—I will be right there with them, but don’t ask me to trust them in a society (if that word would even apply) where there are no rules.  They seem to think that human self-interest guided by providence will take care of things.  I think that people can also be, and often are stupid and hypocritical, among other things.  So the no-government types are either too stupid, or too hypocritical for me to trust without any rules, laws and regulations.  They are the kind of people who burn down a barn to roast a pig; who throw babies out with bathwater. [6] And, they are they type of people who will sneak out in the middle of the night and take a poop outside my door.

___________________________________

©2007, ©2014, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.5.2014)

1. Of course, we know the answer to that one from the Bush/Cheney administration.
2. The euphemism comes in handy when you don’t want to admit that you should have thought this out well before you though you could start a community.
3. Anyway, who would have paid any attention to a commandment that said:  “Thou shall not poop where others walk.”
4. If I have to elaborate on this point for you, you are one of them.
5. One of their favorite 18th Century bromides.
6. I use the folksy clichés because these sorts of people relate to them.

Archives