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.

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