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.