This is a rerun of a piece I wrote about two years ago. I’m repeating it because now, in this Presidential election, it seems particularly pertinent.
So I’m watching When the Levees Broke, the Spike Lee HBO documentary on Hurricane Katrina (which you all absolutely have to see, by the way), and what with that and the one-year anniversary, it seemed like a good time to say something I’ve been wanting to say for a while, about what government is — or what it should be, anyway — and about people who think government is a bad idea.
Here’s what I think government is. Or rather, here’s what I think government should be, and what it actually is at least some of the time. I think government is/should be the structure with which a society pools some of its resources for projects and services that benefit that society, but are too big to be handled privately by individuals or small groups. And it is/should be the structure a society uses to decide how those pooled resources should be used.
Think roads. Sewers. Parks. Fire departments. Public health services. Law enforcement, even. God knows I have mixed feelings about law enforcement as it actually exists in our society — but as Ingrid pointed out recently, when there’s a Ted Bundy on the streets, you want there to be people whose job it is to catch them. It’s pretty much spelled out in the Preamble to the Constitution, actually: “…to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
Except we have a government — a federal government, anyway — that’s run by people who think government is a bad idea. We have a government run by people who think government should always be as small as possible, that taxes should always be as low as possible, that government is at best a necessary evil. (Or who say that’s what they think, anyway. I think they’re big fuckin’ hypocrites, but that’s a different rant.)
And when you see what happened a year ago in New Orleans, you see why government run by people who think government is a bad idea is a criminally bad idea.
Because when you think about what government is — or what it should be — you realize that people who think government is a bad idea are essentially opposed to the idea of pooling resources. To oppose the very idea of government, to think of it as at best a necessary evil, is to believe in the philosophy of “Every man for himself.” It is to believe in the philosophy of “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine.” It is to believe that sharing is bad. It is to believe in the atomization of society, the breakdown of social responsibility into smaller and smaller units. To believe that government is a bad idea is to believe that society itself is a bad idea.
It feels freaky to be defending the idea of government when I’m watching a documentary about its callous incompetence, its inhuman detachment, its colossal screw-up on every level. And it feels ultra-freaky to be defending the idea of government when we’re suffering through what may well go down as the worst Presidential administration in history. But in a way, that’s my point. I think that government should be run by people who think government is a good idea. People who think government is a good idea are looking for ways to make it run better. People who think government is a bad idea are cynically looking for ways they can use it to enrich themselves and their buddies.
The big devil’s advocate question, of course, is why all those big social projects — roads, sewers, parks, fire departments, public health, law enforcement, etc. — can’t be handled privately, by business or charity? That brings me to the second part of my “what government should be” theory — namely, the structure a society uses to decide how its pooled resources should be used. The problem with big social projects being handled by the private sector is accountability. I want to have my roads maintained, my fires put out, my immunizations delivered — and my emergency services provided — by people I can vote for, and vote against. And I don’t want them handled by people whose top priority is not roads or fires or immunizations or emergency services, but profit. (If you want a top-notch example of why social services shouldn’t be delivered by the private sector, watch the part of the Spike Lee Katrina documentary that talks about how the insurance companies completely shafted Katrina victims.)
Are there problems with government? Fuck, yes. Massive ones. It needs to be fixed, and pronto. But it needs to be fixed by people who believe in it. So the next time someone’s running for office by promising to reduce government and cut taxes, think about whether that’s what you really want from your people in office. Because if there’s a better way for a society to pool its resources and decide how those resources should be used than a democratically elected government, I can’t think of it.