One of today’s biggest political and intellectual problems is the concept of “government” as an institution beyond human logic, society, and reality. We are told that more power to the government is a solution; that more money to the government is an absolute good; that more regulation from the government is a font of virtue; and that the government is a knight in shining honor and protector of the downtrodden.
It is possible to show the flaw in this argument within sixty seconds. A number of great philosophers—including the founders of the United States—have done so. Here is the single paragraph necessary to understand the issue:
“Government” is comprised of people. These human beings are oftentimes no better – and often worse – than average people. Government and its specific agencies have their own goals, and their way of functioning have built-in shortcomings (bureaucratic rigidity, indifference to the money and lives of others, lust for the accumulation of power, etc.). Thus, to say that government as a whole and in its parts have no interests of their own is not true. The government is not a solution to all things — a kind of secular god – but an entity with its own selfishness, goals, and negative aspects. Consequently, citizens must guard against its usurpation of their liberty, wealth, and objectives.
This issue is so important, yet does not receive the attention it deserves. Children are being systematically educated in ignorance on this point; about half the population never hears it nowadays.
The government is made up of people. Human beings are imperfect. They are subject to a range of behavior that includes ambition, arrogance, bullying, corruption, cravenness, dictatorial tendencies, greed, inability to understand others’ needs or viewpoints, lack of imagination, being controlled by a specific caste for that group’s own selfish interests, among many other traits.
Once when Lucy van Pelt handed Charlie Brown, of the “Peanuts” comic strip, a long list of his faults, Charlie replied, “These aren’t faults, this is my personality,” or something to that effect.
Government, then, is not a referee but just another special-interest group.
When people accumulate power and money they filter the resulting ability to shape events and force others to comply through these factors in their personalities. The more powerful the government and the less answerable it is to others, the more the traits of those who run it are imposed on the people. When the personality of one human controls government, we call it a dictatorship. When the personality of a caste does so, the government becomes their instrument.
Yes, the same is true of any human institution. That’s why institutions should be in balance. But, of course, government controls the laws and so can compel the action of others to an extent that no one else can. It has a monopoly on force and power to an extent far beyond any other institution. The Mafia can try to compel obedience but citizens can seek the protection of the law. In contrast, government makes the laws and sets the rules. It is like the casino in Las Vegas. To whom can a citizen flee against a government that is too powerful?
There’s more. The kinds of people who become politicians and government bureaucrats have specific and especially developed character traits. They are people who crave power—I know this first-hand from growing up and living in Washington DC in these circles—and who are prone to arrogance once they achieve that status. They do not like to be criticized and they are even more prone than most mortals to believe that they cannot be wrong.
Isolated largely in a single city, and even isolated within that city, they lose contact with ordinary people. Indeed, those contacts reinforce their sense of their own superiority. As revealed occasionally when a politician shoots off his mouth unwisely (Senator Harry Reid on how tourists “stink”), they have contempt for the actual people they rule, just as in some old European monarchy’s court.
They can’t help it. The disease is incurable but the patients must be restrained.
The more they talk about standing up for the little guy and promulgating social justice, the more likely these things are to be cynically manipulated instruments for their own empowerment. They get more money to disperse, too.
Even when they are virtuous—and many originally take up their political or bureaucratic careers out of a belief they want to help others—they are limited by their own lack of knowledge and experience. They have followed very specific courses in life, nowadays mainly a long period of formal education followed by either government service or law; concentration in a relatively few geographical locations; and socializing with each other.
They honestly don’t know much about the real lives of those they rule. Their desire to help often becomes harmful. And even beyond this, they are focused on a narrow sliver of reality. If your job is to save endangered species or environmental purity, you don’t think too much about how fanatical focus on the issue impacts other people’s livelihoods.
About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.
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