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The Government Isn’t Us

It works for us.

Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By FRED BAUER
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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.

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