The Magazine

The Government Isn’t Us

It works for us.

Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By FRED BAUER
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Over the spring and summer of 2013, perhaps still sunning in his November 2012 victory and ideologically extrapolating from this win, President Obama attempted to press the case that skeptics about federal power were outré paranoiacs. At the Ohio State University commencement in May, the president called upon his listeners to reject the voices of those who “warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner.” In July, he trumpeted his administration’s commitment to technological innovation and managerial efficiency, arguing that it was “up to each of us and every one of us to make [government] work better.” We “all have a stake in government success—because the government is us.”

A Connecticut Tea Partier making the point in Hartford, 2009

A Connecticut Tea Partier making the point in Hartford, 2009

Sage ross

In light of these bold declarations, it is grimly amusing that the rollout of the Obamacare website and the individual mandate should be so flawed. The bureaucratic progressivism for which the president advocates requires faith on the part of the public in the efficiency and competence of government. When that faith is shaken, big-government schemes lose some of their luster. One of the main reasons to continue to assert the distinction between government and “us” is government’s limited competence: The fact that government is not omniscient offers a very practical reason why it should not be omnipotent. Like any other institution, government cannot know all the facts on the ground, nor can it know the perfect way to deal with or make use of the facts that it does know.

The Obamacare debacle reminds us again of the practical irreducibility of “us” to government. Indeed, the distinction between “government” and “us” is central to the project of republican liberty for the United States. One of the keys to maintaining the tradition of limited government is recognizing that it is part—and only part—of the broader society in which it operates. Our government, as Lincoln said, is of the people, by the people, and for the people—but it is not the people. 

The people are a mixed lot: young and old; Republican, Democratic, and independent; married and unmarried; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, and Hindu; for higher taxes and for lower taxes; unemployed and working; rich and poor; healthy and sick; and countless other permutations. Government cannot be everything to everybody. It cannot embody all the diverse wishes, hopes, and desires of the people—nor should it try. 

The very opening of Federalist 1 implies that Alexander Hamilton, at least, was very aware that government was distinct from the governed. He acknowledges that the document forged by the Constitutional Convention affects “many particular interests” and argues:

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument and consequence of the offices they hold under the State-establishments—and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandise themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves into fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies, than from its union under one government.

Hamilton’s immediate purpose is to suggest that some in the new United States believed that they could lose the power of various state offices in a newly energized federal union and that others hoped to gain power for themselves in the dissolution of the United States into various distinct commonwealths; both factions would need to be countered in order to ensure the ratification of the Constitution. But Hamilton’s operating assumption in this analysis is that some men and women gain power from government—the very act of forming a government creates a group of winners.

Governments both create and distribute power. Governments (or men and women under the auspices of government) tax, spend, go to war, imprison, and so forth. Some are appointed officers of the government and thereby gain the ability to apply or to manipulate this power, which they might not have as private individuals. This act of empowering immediately distinguishes the government from the people as a whole: The government and its officers have distinct powers that are not shared by all people. A private citizen can’t legally pardon a murderer, nor can a private citizen demand tax payments from another.

In a democratic republic, the government may draw in some abstract way from the wellspring of the people, but we might consider government to exist as a series of institutions that are distinct from the people as a whole. Local, state, and federal agencies, legislatures and executives at various levels, and the court system, among other entities, comprise this web of institutions. In the United States, government, by design, does not speak with a unified voice; instead, it consists of these various institutions entering into a dialogue with each other.

There is another side to Hamilton’s argument (one found throughout the whole of the Federalist project): government is not the people, but it can be an instrument at the people’s disposal for protecting their rights. As he writes in Federalist 1, “vigour of government is essential to the security of liberty.” As the Founders well knew, the flame of liberty might burn brightly, but it can be imperiled at times. The institutions of our government can protect us from threats from abroad as well as from betrayals of liberty at home. Chaos and turmoil are often the greatest threats to civil liberties. Law and order provide the foundation for the kind of stability helpful for the maintenance of liberty, and the institutions of government help provide this ameliorative grounding.

But the Founders and their successors were well aware that government could destroy liberty as well as defend it. Hamilton and his contemporaries saw how a monarch could go rogue, as we might say now. By the Civil War, Americans had seen decades of racial slavery sanctioned and enforced by governments at various levels. Our own time has seen government-supported segregation and racial disenfranchisement along with a host of other abuses of government power, ranging from corrupt city officials to politically motivated prosecutions
to misuse of the IRS. Power always has the capacity to corrupt, and government bodies, the seats of power, are always liable to corruption.

The Founders responded to this potential for corruption by decentralizing government authority, using the principle of federalism to create tensions and distinctions between state and federal authorities and breaking the federal government into three branches in order to divide power. One detail that President Obama and some of his allies may miss is that many of those whom they lambaste as antigovernment zealots are not, in fact, asking for a destruction of government: They instead are asking for a rebalancing of institutions within the government as a whole. Consider the Tea Party federalists who seek to elevate the power of state governments at the expense of federal power. Whatever one might think of this approach as a practical matter, it’s hard to call it antigovernment.

This play between institutional authority and various levers of power can often advance the interests of freedom and of democratic governance. For instance, some states instituted suffrage for women decades in advance of the Nineteenth Amendment, and the courts have long held a role in protecting rights and freedoms from the overeager reach of the executive and legislative branches. Moreover, this diffusion of authority makes it harder for any single narrow clique to take control of all the levels of power and institute tyranny.

Obviously the current government is not a tyranny. But the fear that any government—even one of great initial virtue and prudence—could degenerate into one was a cardinal concern of the Founders. Though some Founders (such as Jefferson) might have celebrated a slightly more volatile body politic, Hamilton and others sought to make both tyranny and violent insurrection as unlikely as possible. The diffused, heterogeneous nature of the government as envisioned by the Founders strengthens rather than weakens the foundations of the American republican experiment. Through affirming the limits of government—through insisting that it is distinct from “us”—we advance a government in which we can actually have some small faith. 

Recognizing the limits of government, we can work to improve it while also realizing the contingent nature of any potential improvements we may make. Keeping these limits in mind can help prevent us from making a false idol of government—of expecting that it could be the immanentized hopes of everyone for everything. Government can be a vehicle for expressing Americans’ hopes, wishes, and dreams, but this expression remains partial and limited.

The Founders and generations of Americans after them recognized the great potential of governance for advancing liberty: There’s a reason why the Founders instituted, and later generations defended, the United States as a national government. But part of realizing that potential depends upon recognizing the distinction between the institutions of government and the people. 

A watchful eye for danger and an insistence upon the difference of the people from the government serve to legitimize government. The price of liberty includes eternal suspicion of the uses to which the instruments of government are put.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.

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