Part The Fourth

Suspicion of power--govt not perfect--big govt not bad govt--solution in application

"The fourth principle that defines conservatives," says [info]earth_wizard, " is their suspicion of power and their hatred of big government. In his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan declared: 'Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?'"

("All of us together!" cry the massed voices of small-d democrats everywhere. Democracy is, after all, based on the principle that a million men are smarter than one man, as Heinlein pointed out in his Lazarus Long persona. Personally, I think that's a deliberate misstatement of the true principle of democracy, but that may just be me. Anyway.)

This speech raises questions, such as "if you think government is the problem, why are you in it?" But that is just being facetious, and while I'm all for a good facete, I'm trying to be serious here. Thomas Paine said that government was a necessary evil, and John L O'Sullivan said that government is best that governs least, so they're with old Ron there. But are they right?

Well, yes, if we want them to be. It is possible to look at government that way if you choose to. As you drive along the roads you can curse the authority that maintains them. When the policeman arrests the thugs who have tried to rob your shop you can call him a tool and a running-dog lackey of the imperialist military-industrial complex; though that sort of thing always sounds a bit odd coming from a conservative. You can, if you want to, close your eyes to all the good that government does for every single person in the land, and only see a necessary evil. Or you can see a thing, made by human beings with good intentions (cue road to hell joke, but good intentions are not always a bad thing), neutral in itself, both good and evil in its consequences, and most of the evil born of correctable flaws in its execution.

Government is not the problem; the problem is that we go about it in such a half-baked way. We allow vast overmanning and overbudgeting one week, and then we suddenly wake up and strip everything down to the bone till it can hardly function. I've seen it happen. We rebrand, relaunch and reorganise, and come up with new and even more confusing procedures rather than making the old procedures less confusing by doing them properly. And worst of all, we assume that because democracy means government by everyone, that means that anyone is qualified to govern in our name. Anyone, that is, who wants the job. And what person of sense would, knowing that we don't want them for any merit they possess, that barely more than half of us who bother to express an opinion want them at all, and that once they're in the job they'll get the blame for everything from a shower of rain to nuclear testing in the South Pacific?

It's obvious that government will never be perfect, no matter how much we improve it. But it's equally obvious that government will never get any closer to perfection if we're constantly trying to get rid of it, or to diminish it, or to restrict its function. There are ways in which it could do to be smaller, certainly, but there are also ways in which it could do to be much larger. One of those ways is in placing restrictions on the power of the individually wealthy.

Conservatives are said to be suspicious of power, and of human nature, which is why they don't like big government. And yet they have no objection at all to individual human beings having power and resources far in excess of those enjoyed by any government in history. Somehow their suspicion of power doesn't extend that far. I say one of the most important functions of government is as a curb on human nature, a limit to the power of one person to affect and rule the lives of others. America was born because its people had done with kings; and yet its industrialists and its media tycoons enjoy greater power than many kings of the past or the present, and they are trusted with this vast power, and the government bows before them when they send their lobbyists round. Something is wrong here.

To deal with this problem, government should be big, should be wealthy, should be powerful, because it has (if it's run properly) a responsibility to all its citizens to be more than human, to be above human nature and its flaws. It needs to be able to dictate to any human, no matter how rich or how influential. It needs to be inviolably proof against being bribed or bought, so that it can be absolutely impartial. And if that makes people suspicious, well, that's just tough.

But big government doesn't have to be bad government. It's a cliché about liberals that they want the government to control everything, but I don't believe that's true; it certainly isn't true of me. I see my ideal of government as huge power applied with surgical precision, where it's needed and nowhere else. What we have at the moment is small power misapplied, and the conservative solution is to make the power even smaller. I believe that's wrong.