Rasmussen has defined a really fantastic concept for its poll interpretations: the Political Class. The very name evokes images of power elites and pundits, fervently applauding their own efforts while peppering their language with meaningless phrases like “the American people” and “Main Street” (vs. “Wall Street”). Oh, you didn’t get all that from it? Well, I did… Maybe I’m too bitter. Anyway, the Political Class is that small group of elites and its ardent supporters, the ones who try to brand themselves as populists but are in fact concerned primarily with the goodness of their own power and authority.
- Generally speaking, when it comes to important national issues, whose judgment do you trust more – the American people or America’s political leaders?
- Some people believe that the federal government has become a special interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests. Has the federal government become a special interest group?
- Do government and big business often work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors?
The idea is that each one has three acceptable answers (the populist answer, the elitist answer, and “I don’t know”), and your category is assigned based on your responses. So if you give the elitist answer to 2 questions and I don’t know to a third, or the elitist answer to all three, you’re in the Political Class. Similarly for the Populist Mainstream. I gave the so-called populist answer for all three questions.
This interests me because it’s a definition of populism that’s very much about public sentiment. It’s not that I’m a populist because I support protectionist trade policies (I don’t) or because I support giving a small voting majority free handouts (I certainly don’t) as our elites would have us believe populism really is, but rather that I’m a populist because I think the elites — wherever they are found — are, for the most part, working against popular interests and for their own exclusive advancement.
Don’t misunderstand — I don’t have any objections to people working in their own interests in the private sector. I do, however, have a serious objection to the government acting in its own interest — because that is practically by definition against ours.
It is in the populist answers to those three questions that the true nature of the reform this country rightly yearns for can be found.
I’ve heard that Congressman Barney Frank has defined government as “the things we choose to do together”. That’s cute. Here’s the quote as I’ve seen it:
Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together.
What a can of worms. The first thing that strikes me about that statement is that it is not limited to institutions we normally think of as part of the civil government — it could mean big banks that more or less set monetary policy, for example. I agree with that aspect, that large monopolies have the potential to (but don’t necessarily) take on governmental roles and therefore should be considered part of government.
The next thing I think is that this might be true in a real democracy. In a democracy in which everything that was done by the government was implemented after a vote (a totally impractical prospect), this would be true. We’d have majorities voting for all of the various coercions imposed upon the public, and in that sense “we” would be choosing those things.
But that’s a scary thought. The founders wisely opted to establish a republic, not a democracy. That very fact makes clear that our government is not the things we choose to do together, but rather maybe just the things we do together. We don’t necessarily choose them all — instead, we choose leaders who we trust to make those decisions for us, even if at times we would overwhelmingly oppose them. That, by the way, is a huge moral responsibility for both the voter and the elected governor.
If government really does extend beyond the traditional institutions, and include other things not necessarily run by elected officials at all, then we no longer even have a pure republic. We have something that is part republic, part oligarchy. And that only further erodes the idea that we’re choosing what we’re doing together.
Moreover, can a majority choose to impose its will arbitrarily on a minority? The answer is of course no, at least not rightly. So the warm-and-fuzzy language of “things we choose to do together” is itself toxic.
Government is probably better understood in terms of collective coercive power. The government is composed of those institutions that can coerce you and me to do what they want us to, with or without our say (the part of our government that is a democratic republic is supposed to graciously hold out for our say most of the time).
How do we restore right and proper republican government? Throw the bums out, elect new men of principle, reform the existing constitutional government to bring it back in line with its intended form and function, and begin to seriously prosecute fraud and cronyism in the private sector, focusing particularly on those companies and individuals who have colluded with the government to gain access to its coercive powers for their own advancement. Only then can we restore freedom and liberty, and work with a sensible definition of government.
I know this isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but I don’t like paying taxes. When I tell people this, responses tend to fall into one of three categories: “you should be okay with it because taxes are what keep things running”, “yeah no kidding”, or “well taxation is basically the government stealing from you at gunpoint”.
And wow are my reactions overcomplicated as always:
- You shouldn’t complain about paying high taxes because they benefit the country that allowed you to gather that wealth in the first place. This is a half-truth. Most of my tax dollars don’t seem to be funding the sustenance of this country (as if I have a boundless debt to the rest of my countrymen, determined not by my own state and actions but by theirs), but rather waste, corruption, and inessential luxuries for others. I’m overtaxed.
- Taxes suck. This is a whole truth — of course they suck, they’re a necessary evil! And necessary (not in an ultimate sense) things that are evil always suck. What do I mean when I say that they’re a necessary evil? Well, I accept the proposition that government is itself a necessary evil, made necessary by the general sinfulness of mankind. If there’s going to be some shadow of justice on this earth, it’s going to come through a government (civil or otherwise). So to the extent that the government is necessary, since I’m just as responsible for making it necessary as anybody else, I absolutely believe it is my duty to fund it. And that sucks.
- Taxation is basically the government stealing from you at gunpoint. This is another half-truth. To the extent that government is necessary, I have a duty to fund it and so they’re justified in taking the money (or are they only justified in requesting it, but then free to boot me out if I refuse?). But beyond that? Dirty thieves, the lot of them! I’m serious about this — people who act (vote, petition, etc) to encourage the government to take more of my money are working in support of stealing from me, and, to the extent that they understand this, I cannot pretend they have not wronged me.
I’m fine with paying taxes because I owe it to my fellow men. I’m not fine with paying excessive taxes because I’m entitled to the fruits of my hard work and good fortune. When the government extends beyond its justifiable functions, beyond its necessary role, I have no obligation to it, and I surrender my money only out of fear. After all, “all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
We’re saved from civil war by geography. To the extent that we are a deeply divided nation (and I believe we are, albeit along different fault lines than have been acknowledged until recently), it is not a geographic division. It is not a division that roughly corresponds with existing political entities. The Civil War was possible because the South was a region of the country and it was a region of the country with political structures separate from the rest of the country. Thankfully, we have a much higher hurdle to pass today.
I picked up Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense. I was at the bookstore a while ago, thumbing through a big stack of books that I had little intention of buying — a typical trip for me. I was eager to crack into this one, having never read it but living in such interesting times that it could be strangely relevant once more. When I finally got past the introduction, the very first sentence (and its subsequent articulation) struck me so hard I closed the book and felt no need to read on.
SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
I don’t really believe that “liberal” and “conservative” are very useful labels for classifying the country politically. I know a lot of politically liberal people that I would say are, in their general sensibilities, conservatives. I’m not saying they’re economically conservative, or socially conservative, or somehow libertarian, but that they are conservative in the sense of having a prudent disposition and a deference to tradition. When I say that I am a conservative, it is chiefly this to which I refer. I also believe that this is something fundamental to the American system. This sort of conservatism is the natural heir to classical liberalism.
This disposition leads me to very naturally separate government and society. I can say that I love America but that I despise the government. I can say I have the highest confidence in America and the least in her government. I can say I believe that America owes her existence to Divine Providence, but also that this falls very far short of giving our government the sort of divine sanction traditionally attributed to the monarchies it overthrew. These are ideas very old and deeply ingrained in America, but are today in peril. There are many who do not draw these distinctions. When their ideological opponents are the dominant party in power, they despise the nation and are ashamed to call themselves Americans. I saw this attitude pervade the far left during the Bush years, it has always existed in the (smaller) far right.
This is the fault line. The parties may reflect a certain kind of liberal/conservative split, but forget about that for a minute. Here I’m talking about basic philosophy of government and society. It’s not liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican. I don’t have the language to describe it, but I’m coming close saying it’s collectivist/individualist, statist/libertarian. It’s not about policy, all of that is secondary. It’s about identity. Because of that, these are groups that can and do span liberalism and conservatism and both parties.
When the government becomes tyrannical, the American thing is to oppose and if necessary overthrow it. Most of the left was very familiar with that concept during the Bush years, and most of the right is very acutely aware of it now — Americanness is not rooted in the government; in fact, the two necessarily exist in tension.