When They Say Government They Mean You

This post originally appeared at Open Left.
I’d like to talk about government. The conservative/corporate propaganda machine has turned “government” into a bad word. Conservatives portray our government as some kind of enemy of the public. We have all heard the scare stories about the harm done by meddlesome regulations from intrusive big government programs run by government bureaucrats.
Let’s step back from reacting to the word as we hear it today and think about what the word really means.
In America government is us. It is, by definition, “We, The People.” Our Constitution is the defining document of our government and it couldn’t be clearer, declaring that We, the People formed this country “to promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves”… In other words, watch out for and take care of each other; “We, the People” have banded together to watch out for each other, take care of each other and build institutions to protect and empower each other.
With this in mind let’s try an experiment. Try substituting some variation of the words, “We, the People,” “us” or “the people making decisions for ourselves” every time you read or use the word “government.” Or use the word “our” instead of “the” when you say “the government.” Our government, us, we, the people, working together to take care of and empower each other.
My favorite use of this experiment is to apply it to Reagan’s keynote statement, “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Reagan is making a profoundly anti-democratic statement here. He is saying that “The people making our decisions for ourselves and watching out for each other is the problem.”
With statements like these, Reagan and the conservatives are advocating a different system of government than democracy. They are saying that we should hand those decisions and responsibilities over to the “private sector” – the corporations – and let others decide how things are going to be done and how our money and common resources will be used.
Another example is when conservatives repeat, “Don’t let the government tell us what to do.” That becomes, “Don’t let us tell us what to do,” or a little more broadly, “Don’t let us decide the rules that we will live by.” If WE aren’t the deciders, then who is? What about the conservative pejorative, “big government?” They are complaining about “big We, the People.” They want “limited government.” So they have a beef with US having more power over ourselves! Of course, if WE don’t have this power, who do you think will?
Conservatives complain about government as a meddlesome, intrusive problem. But just who is government a problem for? If you are a top executive in a large chemical corporation and your bonus depends on lowering the cost of discarding toxic wastes, government stands between you and the river into which you want to dump the wastes. It costs the company less to dump the waste into the river, you will get your bonus, but We, the People don’t want that stuff in our water. So for you, government is the problem. And that is a good thing. But our government is us. Our government protects us.
How about the refrain that people shouldn’t rely on government, but instead should rely on themselves? That sounds good, somehow. But try it with “each other” and a small adjustment to “themselves,” and what they are saying becomes, “People shouldn’t rely on each other they should be on their own.” This is a variation on their “personal responsibility” mantra. They want us alone and defenseless. (This is also why they hate unions.) Is alone and defenseless really such a good way to live, especially in a world dominated by big corporations always trying to trick us and get our money? Wouldn’t it be better if we were working to protect each other from the big corporations?
Spending: When conservatives complain about government spending they mean empowering and taking care of each other. They don’t like us doing that. We as a species learned from the beginning to band together, take care of each other. And now they want us separated and on our own.
Government taxing and spending is what empowers us. In the 1950s President Eisenhower proposed building the interstate highway system. That was an example of government spending, and as I wrote the other day, the top tax rate was over 90% on income above a certain amount. So after executives and owners of big companies made several hundred thousand dollars additional income was taxed at a very high rate. They could still become very, very wealthy, but more slowly. This taxation meant that the major beneficiaries of our government helped us pay for our government.
It paid off. The interstate highway system triggered a surge of economic growth, new industries, new products — and even greater income for the very people who were taxed to help pay for it.
We also spend money protecting each other. Let’s talk about the distortions in military spending another time. What about our spending to regulate corporations and enforce those regulations? Or spending on education or health care or parks? Conservatives just hate that. They have convinced much of the public that government spending – the people taking care of each other – is bad. And the way to disempower us is to cut taxes, the ability to gather the resources we need to fight the battles we fight with the rich and powerful.
Try these experiments, substitute “us” and “We, The People” when you hear conservatives complain about government. Substitute “the resources we need to empower each other and fight the powerful” when you see the word “taxing” and substitute “taking care of each other” when you see the word “spending.” This can be very powerful and empowering. It helps us see what kind of world the conservatives are really advocating.