Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fearing Government

In a bloggingheads diavlog with Peter Laarman, Susan Thistlethwaite makes a really interesting point on the anti-government mentality: you're alone.

This can't but feed a sense of alienation and well, fear. The modern conservative movement has essentially come to mean the demagoguery of government. From a reasonable skepticism about the role of government in particular areas of life, it has through endless political propaganda and movement politics morphed into an angry attack on the very idea of government itself.

This is incoherent. Most conservatives will themselves admit to supporting all manner of government services, from libraries to schools to parks to social security and medicare. But in seeking to demonstrate that government is not explicitly doing what they want it to do, in the way that they would prefer, the rhetoric of the movement denies the great and undeniable good that old fashioned government does day in and day out.

This occurred to me today as I drove up one of the beautiful streets in my hometown: the degree to which we take for granted the almost seamless perfection with which our state functions. Who cleaned the street? Who decided to put a left-turn lane there? Who made sure those street lights were working properly? Who planted those shrubs? OK, maybe "seamless perfection" is a bit over the top. But all-in-all, we've got it pretty good.

And in a much grander fashion, we see laws being organized, voted on and followed. We see mail being delivered and businesses applying for the proper permits. We see commerce regulated, children taught, the needy fed, the sick and injured given emergency services.

Now, of course we disagree, often profoundly over what should and should not be done. But that is to overlook the fact that we agree on so much! And we benefit in so many ways from a qualified, competent, citizen-directed and responsive government. To the degree that we have any major problems with the government, is is in the quality, not the quantity. Corruption ought to be rooted out, inefficiencies tightened, important needs met.

But there is no need for existential questions about government, which is what the rhetoric against "big government" often implies. We should all be thankful that we live in a country where things work as well as they do. And to the extent that we do not appreciate this, that we have lost faith in a government that is overwhelmingly good, I worry that our cynicism will only make things worse.

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