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Do You Feel Especially Governmenty?

July 24th, 2009 · 6 Comments

You’ve probably read something like this before:

I’d like to talk about government. The conservative/corporate propaganda machine has turned “government” into a bad word. Conservatives portray our government as some kind of enemy of the public. We have all heard the scare stories about the harm done by meddlesome regulations from intrusive big government programs run by government bureaucrats.

Let’s step back from reacting to the word as we hear it today and think about what the word really means.

In America government is us. It is, by definition, “We, The People.”

It’s a cute rhetorical flourish, but if anyone actually took this civics class pap seriously, wouldn’t it cut just as strongly against the notion that “the government” ought not to silence speech or tell us how to pray?  After all, it’s just We, the People deciding things for ourselves.  Yet I can’t help but notice that lots of folks who see a Norman Rockwell democracy when it comes to economic regulation become incisive public choice theorists when looking at, say, no-bid military contracts. To be sure, there are reasons to expect certain processes to be especially opaque, but it seems as though relatively few people are actually naive enough to hold this model of how government works across the board.

Tags: Language and Literature



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam // Jul 24, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Well…I think most of the point is that this is a cute rhetorical flourish. That is, the author isn’t trying to stake some deep claim about the ideal role or form of government. Rather, he’s just pushing back against an equally vapid and rote critique of government as endlessly malign or incompetent. I just skimmed the article (it isn’t really to my taste), but it seems pretty clear that the author is operating at the level of rhetoric; for example, he plays with various Reagan quotes.

    Obviously liberals don’t, in general, think that everything the government does is awesome. Rather, they’re annoyed at the massive status quo bias embedded in the assumption that nothing the government does is good.

  • 2 Mike // Jul 26, 2009 at 12:20 am

    Assuming I understand the author’s point, or else just advancing my own, I believe that you have unfairly extended his argument far past where it is meant to end. The argument is simply that the government is not alien to us; rather it is us. The people who perform the roles in our government come from nowhere but our citizenry, and they never become anything but citizens empowered under a Constitution and laws also passed and enforced by citizens on other citizens. This is in contrast to a monarchy, where differing classes of person exist as a matter of law: ruler and subject.

    None of this confers any necessary blessing on the particular actions what of the citizens in government to — that still may be wise or unwise, legitimate or illegitimate, legal or illegal as the facts, context, and law dictate.

  • 3 Neil the Ethical Werewolf // Jul 26, 2009 at 1:20 am

    I’ve seen you use the word ‘pap’ to describe insipid writing a couple times recently. I’ve heard the term before, of course, but I’m wondering — is it a metaphor where this is the sort of thing that I’m supposed to imagine? Or is it just a general word for painfully empty writing? I hope I’m not supposed to think of a pap smear.

  • 4 Anonymous // Jul 26, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Neil the Ethical Werewolf: Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary it seems like you’re more or less right.

    Pap originally had a meaning of a sort of bland mushy food (such as for babies), and eventually took on the meaning of things that were metaphorically bland and mushy, and then outside of a certain South African porridge the original meaning mostly died out and the metaphorical meaning survived on its own.

    Apparently pap as in pap smear is unrelated: it’s short for Georgios Papanikolaou, the inventor of the Pap smear.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Jul 27, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    The argument as you summarize it is naive to the point of absurdity, and not the sort of thing I find it credible that any adult sincerely believes.

  • 6 Neil the Ethical Werewolf // Jul 28, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Ah, thanks for OEDing this up, Anonymous.