By Barry Rubin
One of today’s biggest political and intellectual problems is the concept of “government” as an institution outside 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 often 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 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 a party 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 doesn’t receive the needed attention. Children are being systematically educated in ignorance of 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 use it to force others to obey them and serve their goals. The more powerful the government and the less answerable 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 its 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 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. To whom can a citizen flee for 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. Indeed, as comes out 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 piece of reality. If your job is to save endangered species or environmental purity, you don’t think too much of the impact of a fanatical focus on that topic regarding other people’s livelihoods.
And then, of course too, you are using other people’ money. A factor that also makes people careless and spendthrift. You are not subject to the rigorous cost effectiveness that a business faces. It is easy to conclude that you know best and it is necessary to make others do things for their “own good.”
Self-interest dictates the maximum accumulation of power and money for yourself and you department. To fill up the day you must produce regulations and reports on other’s compliance with existing regulations. As a result, there is a strong tendency to tighten the noose around the freedom of your subjects. And for many this is reinforced by a specific agenda to be put into place whatever the cost or effect on the citizenry.
Known to relatively few outsiders is the reality of federal government culture. The work ethic is a joke for many (though others labor with fanatical tenacity, albeit unfortunately when they have an agenda to impose). To do the least possible is a passion for most and they know they can get away with it. Nobody can be fired. Think of a vast, lavishly funded version of the post office, with no criteria for success or efficiency, able to conceal its actual workings, and answerable only to itself.
Anyone who pretends that the federal government is full of people who work harder and more efficiently than the private sector is depending on you never seeing what really goes on. Indeed, the actual hard-working government employees are the system’s fiercest critics–in private only, of course. And when challenged the federal employees’ representatives complain that they are underpaid and working in dingy offices with outdated equipment. Conclusion: the taxpayers should spend a couple trillion more to make them happier, which sort of proves my point, doesn’t it?
In short, those who write the bills in Congress and enforce them–or, increasingly, even create them as regulations in the government bureaucracy–are structurally and inevitably pretty indifferent to those who pay the bills.
And, of course, when one adds in electoral politics the temptation to buy votes by doling out money and privileges becomes irresistible. The government takes credit for giving out “free” stuff when the things are merely being paid for by others. There is no surer way to serve one’s self interest than to pretend one is acting in the public interest.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressman and government officials, but the voters of this country.”
Roosevelt’s statement might have been appropriate for his time. But what happens when after decades of continuous growth the once-small government becomes a country in itself?
What happens when a government through the power of the purse and of regulations can ensure reelection?
What happens when the “fail-safe” institutions of the media, the educational system, and the entertainment industry are enlisted in its ranks, as well as the use of crony capitalism to create “captive corporations” through massive subsidies that don’t even accord with the public interest?
What happens when the functions formerly held by elected officials are usurped by appointed officials and their agencies?
What happens if all of the elected and appointed officials caught up in their own culture of accumulating control for their “team” become less responsive than ever?
Then government does become an “alien power,” or at least a power in the hands of a class or caste that wants to impose its way of life and thinking on everyone else. That is the real “class warfare” going on in America today.
Without going overboard in the analogy, compare this to the Communist experience. Let’s give the Bolsheviks the benefit of the doubt: many of them wanted to make Russia a better place to live. By no coincidence, those who were most sincere and idealistic in that pursuit ended up with a bullet in their heads. “Government” was supposed to be a black box that would exercise the people’s will without having any will of its own. But all the factors listed above came into play. Absolute government abuses power absolutely. And when the controls are removed the most greedy, power-mad, and arbitrary come to the top.
Once you abandon a deliberate division of power and limitation of power, as the authors of the U.S. Constitution, understood, abuse of power is inevitable. Here’s how Leon Trotsky put the same basic lesson in Communist terms: “The party organization substitutes itself for the party, the central committee substitutes itself for the organization, and, finally, a dictator substitutes himself for the central committee.” The “dictatorship of the proletariat” becomes the dictatorship first of the party and then of the dictator. And in a Western democracy, in Roosevelt’s phrase, the government is no longer ruled by the voters but is in practice an “alien power” ruling over them telling them how to live, what to do, messing up the functioning of the society and draining more and more of its wealth.
“Government” was supposed to be a black box that would exercise the people’s will without having any will of its own. But all the factors listed above came into play. Absolute government abuses power absolutely. And when the controls are removed the most greedy, power-mad, and arbitrary come to the top.
Once you abandon a deliberate division of power and limitation of power, as the authors of the U.S. Constitution, understood, abuse of power is inevitable. Here’s how Leon Trotsky put the same basic lesson in Communist terms: “The party organization substitutes itself for the party, the central committee substitutes itself for the organization, and, finally, a dictator substitutes himself for the central committee.” The “dictatorship of the proletariat” becomes the dictatorship first of the party and then of the dictator. And in a Western democracy,
Obviously, this is not the same situation in the United States. Yet the same basic rules apply. Government is like a collection of alcoholics, eager to be or already drunk on power. Society needs to keep them sober by ensuring they stay on a diet of soft drinks and fruit juice.
By removing the real-world situation of government, those who rule intellectually and politically in the current era blind people to the fact that society is out of balance. They attribute its problems to the lack of governmental power and regulation when the opposite is true.
Why do people fall for this? Indoctrination and misinformation is one cause. Yet the truth is that in the past government did have a bigger role to play in doing things like balancing powerful corporations, providing a social safety net, and doing needed tasks no one else could perform. But it’s not 1912 or even 1932 today.
Like any institution that becomes too powerful, government has turned from a helping hand to a strangling hand. There are elements in its nature that make it especially dangerous in that regard. It is precisely the same problem as having overly powerful banks, corporations, military officers, or anything else. And the government’s victories are at the expense of the liberty of individuals.
A reasonable balance must be reestablished. You shouldn’t have to be a conservative to understand that reality.
Indeed, this is really a liberal conception. Liberals have opposed big government when it was very strong and conservative,especially in Europe. They complained of restrictions on rights, on the enforcement of morality, on the protection of the power of aristocrats, the church, and others. A lot of the battle today is not based on philosophical principle but simply on the use of a controlled institution to give one’ own faction more power, money, and ability to implement its own agenda.
Only now that liberals–or, more properly, the left–controls government the position has turned around 180 degrees.
To see government a not so much a form of deity or an inevitable friend of the poor and downtrodden is an illusion. Government is not a magic box but a can of worms. To see it as a player with its own interests that should be as distrusted as any bank or corporations is the purest form of common sense, the very triumph of common sense over ideology and dogma that made America great, its people free, and real democracy possible.
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. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.