Who Makes Up “The Government”?
The refrain is common. “The government should provide X!” or “Why won’t the government do Y?”
There is an implicit assumption here, upon which the entire idea is predicated, which is and always has been flat wrong. That assumption is the idea that government is populated with selfless altruists, who happen to be philosopher-kings, able to discern correctly what should be done and execute it flawlessly. As we all know, nothing is further from the truth.
Over my Christmas vacation, I happened to be sitting with my wife and her grandparents. Her grandfather is retired now, but used to be in construction back in the days when the town was growing, and did quite a lot of building throughout the area. He was telling us of the backroom deals going on with the town currently, the graft and corruption, and the way that the rich and well-connected get projects rushed through the planning commission while everyone else languishes. Corporations push friendly politicians into power to ensure they get their projects through. When one politician’s pet projects look to be in jeopardy, they level charges against the politician standing in the way of being “on the take”. In this little local town, politics is driven by money, charges of corruption and shady dealings abound, and very few people have faith that they’re being treated fairly.
It must be a town controlled by heartless bastards, right? Here’s the kicker, though. I know some of these people. Quite a few of them are acquaintances of my wife’s parents. I’ve met them at parties. Several of them were invited to my wedding. I live 2000 miles away, so I don’t exactly interact with them on a “professional” level, but these aren’t monsters. They’re very nice people. They just know that government may give them the ability or keep them from the ability to do what they want, and thus they want to control government to get the benefits of government. And even more importantly, they’re no different from local politicians in any other town.
And as we’ve seen from our elected officials in Washington, they’re no different from most national politicians. They reward their friends (the people who help them get elected) and punish their enemies (the people who support their opposition in an election). It’s not personal, it’s just business. There’s a lot of money to be made controlling the levers of government, and thus it attracts the sort of people who are willing to use government to enrich themselves (or their friends). It’s only rarely that we have stories like that of William “Cold Cash” Jefferson, but none who watch government can realistically claim that slightly less egregious (and often completely legal) affairs don’t go on every day.
So when someone tells you about all that wonderful things they expect “the government” to take care of, ask who will really be the ones behind it? I’m no fan of Social Security, but I see “the government’s” designs of privatization to be a cure with problems worse than the disease itself. Why? Because I know that government’s solution will enrich the friends of the current administration, punish the enemies, and create unintended consequences where the rest of us get screwed. And that’s government in a nutshell. When people ask me why I don’t want the government to do anything for me, it’s not that I don’t think an ideal government could do it. It’s that I know that our government, and all governments, can never be ideal, because they’re led by people who pursue their own interests, not mine.