What Is a Government?

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Some Americans are in the thralls of a love affair with "the government." Unfortunately, this is a blind crush. Most Americans would not be able to recognize "the government" if they saw it.

What is a government? Does the idea of government transcend the policies of the current regime and stand for a more general proposition? Is government something to love?

Government is merely the stripes on the road, yellow paint on black asphalt. It is street lights, fire hydrants, and prisons — on a good day. On a best-case scenario (known as limited government, or "minarchism"), the government exists to facilitate the peaceful interaction of private individuals. It paints lines on the street to make traffic flow more orderly and more predictable, and to minimize the destruction of private property (or loss of precious human life) in automobile accidents.

There is nothing magical or deserving of affection in painting stripes on a street. A private firm can paint stripes on a street better than a bungling bureaucratic government which hires cronies and cannot go out of business.

Think of this the next time an egomaniac (i.e., politician) with delusions of grandeur runs for office, spewing promises like a cheap hustler picking up women in a bar. Keep in mind that the hustler, if he is elected, will be in charge of having other men paint stripes on the street. On the national level, the hustler may be in charge of blowing up people who live far away.

Consider the case of Turkey. As the BBC reported, the Turkish government has been on the verge of collapse. Not the whole system, mind you. Merely the present coalition of parties and ministers, in other words, the status quo with respect to who has the power.

The "government" means the current regime, and not the entire Turkish political system. The citizens of Turkey and the geographic area known as Turkey will not cease to exist when "the government" collapses. Instead, Hustler B, whom we are not used to seeing in the news, will replace Hustler A.

Such a transfer hardly merits the accompanying drama.

To understand the drama, one must understand that politicians advertise in the way that private firms advertise. Like Coca-Cola or Heineken, a political regime seeks to create brand-name recognition, and to connect the politician’s name to visible "accomplishments." Similarly, like Coca-Cola or Heineken, a government is a fictional entity, not a real person, but an artificial person created by a piece of paper assigning rights, duties, and authority.

Of course, very much unlike Coca-Cola, the government does not have customers. The government, even a genuinely limited government, employs force and coercion. You choose whether or not to buy a Coke. You do not choose whether or not to go to jail if you fail to pay your taxes.

Government must be seen for what it is. At best, a government is a creation of the citizenry. It exists only to serve the citizenry, and not to subjugate them. Insofar as a government acts as if it created the citizens, and treats citizens as subservient subjects, the government loses its raison d’etre. Thus, bad governments are a justification for rebellion. (Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence sets forth these principles quite nicely).

In the American political system, the people are sovereign. "The government," whether local, state, or federal, is merely a tool for the people to protect themselves and their private property. That is the general proposition, in the American political tradition, which transcends the current regime. This general proposition is made concrete in the form of low taxes, minimal regulations, and a general attitude of laissez-faire.

Judged by that standard, "the government" that is the current regime is hardly deserving of affection.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2002 David Dieteman

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