Fifty Shades of Government
On a flight the other day, I noticed that a third of the passengers were reading a certain best-selling book. It got me thinking.
Every politically active group wants something from government, and government is happy to oblige. It’s even more obvious in the election season, and it’s only going to get worse as we approach November.
Another way to put it: Government has lots to give in the way of laws, loot, privileges, protections and punishments. Every pressure group and political party has an idea about how its power over us needs to be used.
Does it make any difference who gets the loot, really? Not really, not to you and me. Whether you are taxed to make bike paths in Palo Alto or to fund reconnaissance missions in Kabul, you are still denied use of your money so that politicians and bureaucrats can realize their dreams. Whether the regulations say that you can’t work for less than $10 per hour or that you can’t buy raw milk at any price, your freedom to make contracts is still being compromised.
We can and will argue interminably about how government ought to be used. Should government prevent gay people from contracting unions or stop private companies from discriminating against people who chose gay unions? Either way, the state is being brought in to tell people what they can and can’t do. In this sense, the left and the right have more in common than either side cares to admit: Both have a plan for how the state can better manage the social order.
Should tobacco be banned or bailed out? Should banks be made too big to fail or badgered with regulatory restrictions so they can’t do real business? Should corporations be protected and subsidized, or should they be taxed within an inch of their lives? Should fatty foods be mandated as part of a national diet or kept off the menu as a health hazard?
These are the great debates of our time. But these are actually not fundamental debates at all. Either way, the only real winner here is government, its agents, its public spokesmen, its powers and its place in our lives and the culture. This is what remains unquestioned.
Should seniors be able to rob young people of their earnings in order to enjoy a luxurious retirement, or should seniors be especially taxed and punished for using more than their fair share of society’s health care resources? Whichever way that debate ends up, liberty itself suffers, and the property rights of everybody are less secure.
Should religious people be able to control what we watch, read and smoke, or should secular people be able to impose laws that keep religious people from having too much influence over our culture? Either way, government is being granted more control over the social order than it should have.
This is the great tragedy of living under leviathan. People have different ideas about how it ought to conduct its affairs. Who should be rewarded? Who should be punished? Who gets the privileges? Who must bear the cost? It becomes a war of pressure groups, everyone seeking to live at the expense of everyone else.
What is this thing we call government? It consists of the gang with an institutional structure that makes the rules, enforces the rules, and lives by rules that are different from those it imposes on the rest of the population. We can’t steal, but government can. We can’t kill, but government can. We can’t counterfeit, kidnap, and engage in fraud, but government can. This thing called government, obviously, has a strong interest in maintaining its power, prestige, and funding.
This is true no matter what the structure of the government happens to be. Oligarchy, absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, presidential republic, parliamentary republic, democracy — all of them have one thing in common: They create a special caste of citizens that live at the expense of everyone else.
In a democracy especially, government enlists us all in its cause. So long as people are arguing about how to use the government, and not whether it should be used to achieve social and economic goals at all, the government comes out the winner. All the pressure groups are really just rewarding the political class, transferring power and money from us to them. Precisely what the excuse is — and it changes all the time, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically — doesn’t matter to government.
Government is a chameleon, pleased to wear any cultural or ideological cloak to blend in with its social and cultural surroundings. In a wrangling, struggling, grasping, dog-eat-dog democracy like ours, there are fifty shades of government, each suitable for a particular time and place, each adapted to purposes of the moment, all with the interest of firming up control by the ruling class.
This is what the “political spectrum” is all about. Government dominates and we submit. It puts us in bondage and we obey its discipline. There’s also got to be a good excuse or else we would never put up with this. We have to believe that the government is, in some way, at some level, doing something that pleases us. Maybe even the government is us!
People say that in the “age of faith” of the Middle Ages, religious differences led to wars. Historians who have looked carefully have noticed something different. Governments that want wars are happy to use religion as the excuse.
And so it is today. In the “age of science,” we get scientific social planning in which experts are supposed tell the people with their hands on the controls how to use them. But whether the excuse is religion or science, security or the environment, nationalism or internationalism, it doesn’t matter to the rest of us. The rights and liberties of the people paying the bill are forever being sacrificed to someone else’s political agenda.
So come November, we will drag ourselves to the voting booth and look at the names and try to remember what these various people promise to do for us and to us if we ratify their right to rule. Having done so, we are told that we’ve made our choice and now we must live with it.
But maybe it is not really a choice at all. Maybe it is time to let go of our dependency and reject the entire master-slave relationship that is the whole basis of the system itself. Fifty Shades of Government has been the best-seller for hundreds of years. It’s time that the governed write an entirely new book.