The Magazine

Government Isn’t Us

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By JAY COST
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Last week, in remarks about further increasing efficiency in government after having “made huge swaths of your government more efficient and more transparent, and more accountable than ever before,” President Barack Obama said:

[In] this democracy, we the people recognize that this government belongs to us, and it’s up to each of us and every one of us to make it work better. We can’t just stand on the sidelines. We can’t take comfort in just being cynical. We all have a stake in government success—because the government is us.

That last sentence might sound familiar to seasoned observers of the president. Back in 2010, at the University of Michigan’s commencement (and as Tea Party opposition to the president and his health care bill reached its peak), Obama said, “When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us.”

In early May, at Ohio State’s commencement, he did not use the phrase “government is us,” but he made essentially the same point:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

With trust in government near an all-time low, the president’s agenda stalled in the House because of skeptical Republicans, and a host of scandals that raise questions about governmental integrity and competence, we should expect to hear a lot more of this from President Obama over the next few weeks and months. Cynicism about government is bad because, in the end, it is just “us.” Why worry?

This is pernicious nonsense. It is, of course, typical for presidents of both parties to trot out poll-tested phrases that lack internal logic or external validity. Even so, for somebody who fancies himself a scholar-president in the mold of Woodrow Wilson, it is not asking too much for him to evince a little more understanding of the constitutional foundations of the republic.

For starters, this is not a “democracy” in the sense that Obama suggests. Government is not “us” inasmuch as we elect representatives whose job it is to represent our interests as they formulate policy. This should immediately induce some measure of skepticism about the government, for it points directly at the principal-agent problem. That is, how can principals (i.e., the voters) make sure that their agents (i.e., their elected representatives) are actually working on behalf of the public, rather than for their own personal gain? As questions of public policy become more complex, and the agents become more entrenched, it becomes harder and harder for citizens to ensure that the people they elect are doing the job they were sent to do.

Moreover, there is an inherent difficulty in aggregating the interests of individual citizens into something that rightly can be called “the public good.” Many times, for instance, the policy demands of one faction will result in harm to another. What to do then? At the very least, one cannot merely assume that a “democracy” will ensure that the public good is promoted after all the votes are counted, as Obama seems to suggest. If an aggressive faction holds a numerical majority, should the minority then expect to be plundered? How does that serve the public good?

The Framers of the Constitution were acutely aware of such dilemmas. James Madison summarized the “republican problem” thus:

The great desideratum in Gov-ernment is such a modification of the Sovereignty as will render it sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions, to controul one part of the Society from invading the rights of another, and at the same time sufficiently controuled itself, from setting up an interest adverse to that of the whole Society.

This sentence is the Rosetta Stone for understanding the unique construction of our Constitution, which tries simultaneously to empower the government to rule the people and restrain it from oppressing them. This is why the Framers spread power across three branches, with an intricate system of checks and balances between them; why they limited the power of the national government; and why they even added a Bill of Rights to state unequivocally what the government cannot do.

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