Can we as a community do something collectively? Can we build something that benefits us all and that we can all share in? Can we take pride in something we built together? Must we monetize everything, breaking it up into smaller parts and selling it to the highest bidder? Must our community always be defined by fragmented private ownership? Must we always resent those hired to build something collectively?-thinking they are somehow undeserving. Only if it is in private hands do people work hard enough for little enough, we think. Only then is there a stern enough overseer. Is the only honorable purpose of a community to commit communal acts of violence and killing?
“Get the government off our backs”, “Government is the Problem”, “Wasteful government Spending”, “Cutting Wasteful Government Spending”, “Special Interest Groups”, these are a few phrases that reminds one, if they are old enough of a fellow named Ronald Reagan. Politicians long ago discovered the ingenious use of “Dog Whistles”. It is when a politician makes a seemingly innocuous statement that sends a much less innocuous message to a particular target audience. Dog Whistle Politics are generally considered racist in nature and were practiced to great effect by the likes of; George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, and think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. Not that other more so-called “liberals” haven’t used dog whistles as well, it just that they didn’t build their entire political foundations on this kind of political deception.
Politicians have had great success in using the word “Government” as a kind of dog whistle. Reagan’s use of the word “Government” was just vague enough to offend very few, while at the same time letting the right people know he was on their side. “Government” was the thing that bused kids to distant schools, government was the thing that was causing inflation, government was the thing that was causing high gas prices, government was that thing that created regulations, government was the thing that charged such high taxes, government was the thing that let welfare cheats steal from taxpayers, government was the thing that was letting dangerous people out of prison. It was a multipurpose dog whistle. People tend to be very imprecise in their analysis of problems; and words by their nature are imprecise. People also tend to make decisions based on what they feel, rather than what unemotional observations might tell them. So getting the “Government” off the backs of the people spoke to many brooding resentments all at once. People who are motivated by resentment and discontent are also more motivated to vote than people who are content or too busy in their lives. In fact I would venture to guess that the majority of people employed by “government” actually ended up voting for Reagan.
However, what Reagan referred to was not government what he was really describing was bureaucracy. “Government” is not the bureaucracies housed in buildings with a government sign on it. It is not just the institutions that are funded by taxes. Government is much more than that, it is the very structure of our society. Corporations such as Exxon, Chevron, BP, Apple, Google, Microsoft are every bit as much a part of our government as the Department of Education, the EPA or the vast Military Industrial Complex. It is a false construct to call only the institutional bureaucracies tied to and answerable to elected officials “government”, when in fact Chevron or Google is every bit as much of our government as any bureaucracy. In fact they are very powerful when it comes to making the rules (the laws) our society is supposed to live by. It is really the competing interests of the large businesses and wealthy individuals that has the ear of most elected officials. The charade that they listen to their constituents is a necessary game. You need to look no farther than who benefits the most from the rules they make to discover who has the ear of a certain politician. If those rules benefit certain wealthy individuals or large corporate interests more than a majority of the people who elected them, then they will simply come up with a rationale to explain it away. “Trickle Down” is an old-fashioned explanation, then it was “Supply Side Economics”, a more recently invented expression that is yet to be muddied is “Job Creators”. We shouldn’t be so easily distracted from looking at who benefits the most from any new rules, it is a simple way to get to the bottom of a lawmakers’ allegiance.
The anti-government appeal is the appeal of the individual. No one seems to like the stifling nature of bureaucracies. It ties us down with its thousand tiny strands holding us back from really expressing our true nature. It creates a structure which surrounds us and makes us feel imprisoned. Our social structure is not a vacuum however, if we simply try to rid ourselves of bureaucracy using the simplistic ideal Bureaucracy= Bad vs Free Enterprise=Good, the bureaucracy will be replaced by something, as we have come to learn. Right now that something is hucksterism. Whatever bureaucracy we’ve gotten rid of in the last 40 or so years has been replaced by peddlers and propagandists constantly trying to sell us something, tricking us into buying things and sometimes even forcing us to buy things. The hucksters sell us on their own brand of ostentatious show, their growling anger, their beautiful bodies, their unique talents, or their miracle cure taking advantage of our every quixotic weakness.
The best intention of bureaucracy should be nothing more than a way of seeking justice. It can be the set of rules created to guarantee that all people should be treated with equal respect (all men are created equal). Instead it is often the set of rules created to protect certain entrenched interests. In an ideal world this seeking of justice would be balanced with our need to express our individual spirit, not as a peddler, but as a story-teller passing along that always evolving story, and trying to put our own stamp on it.
If we view government as the overall form that our society takes, we see that the two oppositional and balancing forces that make it up are; rules and the lack of rules. Or in other words; bureaucracy vs free enterprise, or regulations vs anarchy, or innovation vs practicality, or freedom vs responsibilities, or art vs. math, or liberty vs justice. Whether any particular word has a negative or positive color should be irrelevant, because the two are balancing forces; neither one is “right” or “wrong”, both are necessary. Government is both of the two forces working together; the limbs and roots of a tree. Where we draw the lines and whether we favor more rules or the lack of rules is our choice as a society. This is a collective choice we make as a society. It is a choice driven by both our needs and our ideals, and it is the result of constant negotiation and changes of direction.
If Reagan had said “I would like to see bureaucracy changed so that it is more responsive to middle class individuals” it would have been a losing battle charge. That however is what the participating electorate really wanted. Words do tend to confuse and obfuscate, sometimes intentionally and sometimes just by accident. The shape of our government did indeed take a change in course, coinciding with the time Reagan became president, just as it took a change of course when FDR took office. (I tend to believe that it is not so much any personality that brings about change, rather change is more indicative of the times. Individual are not evil or heroic rather they just become symbols which serve as cues for our minds. Kind of like little caricatures used for cartoons.) But the shape of the change when Reagan took office bears little resemblance to the rhetoric he used to help bring it about. The prison population (one of the most oppressive bureaucracies) grew quickly as new laws (regulations) and sentencing became much harsher. The military and the various corporations and businesses dependent on it increased at an even faster rate. The system whereby society’s rewards are distributed according to perceived value (otherwise known as economics) now favors vast accumulations of rewards over a more generous circulation of rewards. Regulations (the rules for businesses) have decreased while laws (the rules for individuals) have increased. The access to medical care became an exclusive kind of reward of its own, available to fewer and fewer people. The ability of people to obtain housing has decreased though the availability of manufactured goods has increased. The availability of information available to more people has increased dramatically, though this change has happened relatively recently.
Did any of this have to do with “Getting the government off our backs”? The answer is an unequivocal no. (There was a marginal decrease in certain kinds of income and property taxes which was quickly offset by increases in other kinds of fees imposed by banks, credit card companies, phone and energy companies, universities, cities etc.) So were we all hornswoggled, was it all an elaborate ruse, or maybe we were the victim of a well planned bait and switch? I don’t think so, I would suggest that it had more to do with wishful thinking and the general mood of the population as a whole. Supply Side economics was simply an invention of the wealthy class and their highly paid think tanks to justify how important they are to the rest of the world. However it fit the mood of the times well, so when Reagan adopted it, our country gave it a chance. When put into practice it simply didn’t work as intended; just as all prescriptive political and economic theories fail. Reality is a moving target that is not easily directed. Often we put labels on our forms of government; Socialist, Communist, Democracy, Republic, Fascist, Dictatorship, Capitalist etc. But the labels, as words actually mean very little. Few Democracies resemble each other just as few Communist governments resemble each other. The ideals or theories on which they were originally based on, quickly fade and the government begins to take on a life of its own.
The priorities of the individuals who put it into practice in our current government is becoming increasingly clear. Allowing ever larger accumulations of rewards is their top priority. If allowing ever vaster accumulations of rewards (wealth) doesn’t really do much to benefit the rest of society, it really doesn’t matter. These vast accumulations of wealth are justification in themselves. After all isn’t it what we all secretly desire? To be in control of just such an accumulation of rewards? -Not really, it is an ideal taken too far, it is an imbalance in need of a correction, a sense of justice, a set of rules, a bureaucracy of fairness, a movement, a leader. In due time something well come along and push us back in the other direction.
I realize that the usage of the word “government” by lawmakers and in the media often align more closely with my usage of “bureaucracy”. I would argue that this is symptomatic of our need as people to create little word models in our minds and stick with them. Rather than taking a broader more distant view, getting our heads out of our own little battles for a moment. Of course it is the same thing I do now, as I argue against these little word models. In a sense this essay is an argument against essays. I had a friend with a bumper sticker that read “Embrace the Paradox”. I would change that to “be aware of the paradox.” It is similar to studying an M.C. Escher drawing or a Magritte painting. They are things which work so well in their two-dimensional state but we forget they don’t work in the three-dimensional realm.
So why do slogans like “free enterprise”, “individualism”, “personal responsibility”, “reaping one’s rewards” fail to accomplish their promise when put into practice? For some, these slogans work quite well, but contrary to wishful thinking there are limits in our world. When more rewards are given to fewer and fewer people it means that more have less left over. Of course it is not that simple, because there is potential to create more rewards for harder work but only to a certain degree. Often the greatest rewards are bestowed upon the least deserving. The most generous and giving individuals are often left with scraps while the most selfish and brutal reap the largest rewards. Our constant striving for a reward is a more a description of our desires than it is anything that will bring us contentment. This striving is only half the picture; “individualism” without “empathy” is a cold hard concept. It is our concept of empathy which makes us strive for justice and it is our sense of our own uniqueness which makes us strive to make our mark in the world. These are words which try to describe our inner world. Does the outer world reflect our own inner world? I would say “yes” it often does. The shape of our government often swings between an emphasis on justice; such as that which took place during Franklin Roosevelt’s era, and an emphasis on individualism which took place during Reagan’s era.
It is our sense of empathy which creates the entity of our family, those people so close to us that we feel they are part of ourselves. As our sense of empathy moves outward we create a tribe, then a community, then a village, then a state, then a nation, and perhaps someday we will think of the world as our community. There is nothing physical that ties us to other people, it is something that grows entirely out of our own minds. But it all starts with that sense of empathy inside of us.
Balancing that out is our own pursuit of satisfaction, you might call it a pleasure pursuit, but that doesn’t quite capture it. Sometimes it has nothing to do with what we think of as pleasurable. It is more of a pursuit to fulfill our unique vision. That something inside us which we don’t quite understand and we don’t know where it comes from. Maybe it is ego, maybe art, maybe selfishness, maybe pure love but whatever name it goes by its call must be answered.
So there is my theory based on my personal observations. Government is a single outward expression of the two balancing forces inside all of us. Its nature swings from “left” (empathy) to “right” (individualism) simply because our own natures swing in a similar manner.